HL Deb 16 March 1909 vol 1 cc456-64

My Lords, I rise to ask whether His Majesty's Government are aware of the progress which foreign Governments are making in aerial navigation for military purposes; and to move for a Return showing the amount spent upon such operations by the great Powers during last year. I first of all have to express regret that the noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for War is not in his place this afternoon to reply to the Question, as I know he takes great interest in this subject; but I have no doubt that the noble Lord who will reply for His Majesty's Government will be equally able to deal with this somewhat technical subject.

I bring this matter forward from the point of view of its being of national importance. I know that there is a school at the War Office which holds, in common, I believe, with certain other War Departments abroad, that nothing practical so far has been evolved out of the various trials of military airships and aeroplanes, and that there is plenty of time before we need take any serious cognisance of the progress of aviation. But I think I can show, in a few words, that military aviation has already attained such a stage that it is absolutely imperative for this country to give it more attention and to devote more money to it than it is at present receiving. Great progress has been made by foreign countries, especially by France and Germany, in the direction of fitting up dirigible balloons and aeroplanes for war purposes. There is quite a natural dislike in Government offices to anything new. We all know that when torpedoes, smokeless powder, breech-loading rifles, and other improvements in the art of war came in, it took some time before the War Offices were inclined to look at the inventions; and, as a rule, it has been found that private individuals have to work out the early stages of these inventions before Governments will look at them.

I quite admit that the War Office would be perfectly right in not devoting too much attention and money to the subject of military aviation until something had been proved; but something has been proved—a great deal has been proved. I daresay the noble Lord who will reply will be able to say that the military advisers of the Crown have an eye on the situation and are doing what they can. If I am rightly informed, some, at any rate, of the military advisers of the Crown do not believe in the utility of this science for war purposes. They pooh-pooh the whole business. That was brought to my notice very forcibly last summer when I was asked to write an article for an excellent magazine called the Flag, which was published for the benefit of the Union Jack Club. The editor told me that the story was an excellent one and would do very well, but that the War Office did not like it. I asked why, and he said that the authorities thought it would be quite impossible for any bombs ever to be dropped on the War Office. Besides, he added, you have killed the Secretary of State for War. I expressed my willingness to restore the Secretary of State to life and to be content with the Under-Secretary as a mangled corpse, but said I could not remodel the story to such an extent as to deny the possibility of the dropping of bombs from an airship.

As far as I can see, the practical steps taken by the War Office are very meagre indeed. Last year, if I am correctly informed, only about £13,000 was voted for the balloon section of the Royal Engineers, including all establishment charges and other expenditure which had nothing whatever to do with experiments in aviation; and, from personal knowledge, I can state that the arrangements at Aldershot, though the officer in charge, Colonel Capper, and his assistants extract from them the utmost value of which they are capable, are altogether inadequate. It is too much to expect an aeroplane to achieve any satisfactory results which has to start from a very rough field with tree stumps and under every possible disadvantage. I saw Mr. Wright fly in France last autumn, and I can say that he had placed at his disposal a most excellent piece of ground and was assisted in every way by the French military authorities. He had troops to keep inconvenient crowds off, and, altogether, the whole atmosphere in which he worked was that of cordial cooperation. Our military aviators, on the other hand, labour in an atmosphere of discouragement, and the work they can do is of a limited kind. The best work, in fact, in this country has up to now been done by private clubs and associations supported by private funds, and they have been able to achieve a good deal.

It may be argued that, after all, flying is not yet within the range of practical politics. There I entirely differ. Nobody who has seen Mr. Wright fly, or who has seen the performance of any of those who have absolutely flown over distances of upwards of five or ten miles, will for a moment dare to say that flying is not now possible for any human being with moderate intelligence, an aëroplane at his disposal, and money with which to conduct experiments. The House of Commons, I remember, laughed at me some ten years ago when I ventured to prophesy that the day would come when there would be perhaps more motor cars in Palace Yard than cabs. So also I tell your Lordships frankly to-day, though the War Office authorities and even some of your Lordships may, to a certain extent, discount the idea of aëroplanes being within the range of practical politics, that within three or four years flying will be a common thing, and I hope to come down to your Lordships' House before very long in an aeroplane myself.

What is the position to-day? I will go very briefly into the scientific history, which will show how far we have gone. Something like twenty years ago Sir Hiram Maxim was able, by means of a steam engine, to raise what we should now call an aeroplane from the ground with considerable success. His propelling machinery, which was the best that could be got at the time, averaged about ten and a half pounds per horse-power produced. But owing to the development of the internal combustion engine, which we owe largely to the motor car, we have now got the weight down to less than three and a half pounds per horsepower. To give your Lordships an idea how important this is, I may mention that the pigeon only produces one horse-power for every forty-two pounds of weight, and that the goose only produces one horsepower for every 144 pounds of weight; so that mankind has gone ahead of nature in a remarkable way. We produce more than ten times the power per weight that the pigeon does, and when you consider how fast the pigeon flies the fact will be brought home to you that we have capabilities of speed and that all we lack is a little more experience. As a country we ought not to leave this to private enterprise, but ought to take an active part from the point of view of science, let alone the question of the safety of these realms.

I may be asked by my critics, Can airships or aeroplanes become dangerous to this country? Why need we take any notice of the question from the military point of view? I am one of those who believe that within a year or two Germany and France will have a considerable fleet of speedy dirigible balloons. Already these balloons have gone at the rate of thirty miles an hour, and in future will be able to go much faster. They will be capable of carrying six or eight men, or the equivalent in weight of explosives. One does not want to be an expert to know that high explosives of the weight only of six men or weighing 900 lbs. may do very serious damage; and when it is remembered that the balloon can be arrested in its flight and remain stationary over a given point while the explosive is dropped on that site—be it a Government office, railway bridge, bank, or dockyard —it is obvious that airships may be very dangerous instruments indeed. Only last week the new Zeppelin airship flew thirty-five miles an hour, and, though it went up in a considerable wind, it manœuvred with ease and satisfied the very critical authorities on the spot.

I should like to tell the House how near as the crow, or as the dirigible, flies this country is to important points on the Continent. London is only 320 miles from Emden; or, to put it in another way, in ten hours a fleet of dirigible balloons could come from Emden and be over London. That, surely, must make us think. Sheerness is 295 miles from Emden, and the distance from Dover to Metz is only 260 miles. Take France. The distance from London to Boulogne is ninety miles, from Sheerness to Boulogne sixty miles, from Dover to Calais twenty-one miles, and from Portsmouth to Cherbourg ninety miles. All these distances are so short compared with what airships have already accomplished that I say, without hesitation, that to-day the insularity of this country is not what it was, and I feel quite certain that when the War Office and His Majesty's Government realise the progress that has been made abroad they will see the necessity of devoting attention to this important question. To give an instance of how the coming of airships may revolutionise our ideas, I would point out that most of our fortifications are protected in the main against horizontal attack; very few are protected against overhead attack, and our dockyards are not so protected at all. It seems to me, as one of the first things that ought to be done, that at any rate the great arsenals of this country should be so constructed that bombs dropped upon them should not explode the quantities of powder held in reserve. Again, even if we took no active steps for using aëroplanes as regards attack, it should be the duty of the Government to get, as soon as possible, a gun that is capable of firing at a high angle. There has been a howitzer constructed lately at Barrow which has shown good results, but a fixed gun is of no use against an aerial enemy. In my opinion the gun of the future which will be useful against aëroplanes or dirigible balloons is one capable of being rapidly moved, so as to follow airships and harass and destroy them.

What have the Germans done in this matter? Only three days ago I received from a friend of mine in Berlin details and a photograph of a new Krupp gun which can be fired at practically any angle overhead, and can also be attached to a motor-wagon and moved rapidly over the country. I am told that Germany has ordered a great number of these guns, and that they are to be placed all along the western frontier. I am also informed that in this country we have no such gun in contemplation. I bring this forward in no party spirit, but I think the War Office and the Admiralty should realise that the nations on the Continent are most feverishly working at this problem and devoting large sums of money and energy to it. In Germany the national interest in the Zeppelin airship was such that when the Count's airship was destroyed the German people raised £275,000 by public subscription, to which the Government added £25,000. When other nations are doing so much, it seems to me that a grant of £13,000 last year to cover the whole of our experiments in this direction, and a grant, as stated by Mr. Haldane in another place, of £19,000 this year is absolutely inadequate and unworthy of this country.

I will quote a few figures to give your Lordships an idea of how serious the position has become of late. As regards dirigible balloons, the German "Zeppelin" has flown 270 miles, from Friedrichshafen to Lucerne and back, and in August of last year covered 360 miles, or a considerably longer distance than that from the nearest point of Germany to this country. In speed the "Zeppelin," 1908 type, covered twenty-six miles per hour, whilst the 1909 type covered from thirty to thirty-five miles an hour, and in some cases an even higher speed was attained. The question of altitude is also an important consideration. The 1908 type of Zeppelin reached an altitude of 2,600 feet, whilst the latest type has reached 5,643 feet. I do not know whether your Lordships have endeavoured to shoot at anything at a good height, but I can assure you that the chance of hitting a balloon 1,000 feet up in the air is very small indeed. Here you have airships capable of an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet. This shows how dangerous they can become. As regards France, the "Patrie" covered 160 miles from Paris to Verdun at thirty miles an hour, whilst another balloon, the "Republique," has attained an altitude of over 4,500 feet. Mr, Wright has already flown seventy-seven miles in two hours and twenty minutes, which is the longest time recorded; and only the other day, at Le Mans, he flew fifty miles in one hour and nine minutes with one passenger and at an altitude of 360 feet, and he told me himself that he could easily have risen to an altitude of a mile, and, if necessary, higher.

I beg your Lordships' pardon for having detained the House some time, but I think I have put enough facts before you to show that in this matter we must display as a nation more energy than we have been doing. No one who considers the rapid march of the science of aviation nowadays can help to a certain extent, blaming the permanent officials and the Army Council for their slackness in the past. It has been the traditional attitude to wait until private inventors or foreign nations have perfected their arrangements and then to come in with a rush. But shall we be able in this matter to come in with a rush? This question, in my opinion, cannot be deferred, and with all sincerity I ask His Majesty's Government to give it their most careful attention.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for a Return showing the amount spent upon experiments in aerial navigation for military purposes by the great Powers during last year.— (Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.)


My Lords, I must apologise for replying in the place of my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State for War, who is absent through indisposition, although, in a sense, perhaps, as the matter is one which does not concern one Department but the defence of the whole country, it is appropriate that a member of the Cabinet should reply to the noble Lord's Question. No one, I am sure, can complain of the noble Lord for having brought this subject forward, and his apology for taking up the time of the House was entirely unnecessary. We know that he is a real expert in all these matters, and we are grateful for his advice and welcome the information he has been able to give.

The noble Lord seemed to imply that there was a tendency on the part of Government offices, if not to treat these matters lightly, at any rate to be unwilling to look closely into them, on the ground that all Government offices dislike anything new. It is, however, the fact that the Committee of Defence have turned their attention very seriously to this subject. As my right hon. friend the Secretary of State told the House of Commons, the matter has been referred to experts with a view of seeing what further steps ought to be taken, and, so far as the Army is concerned, more money is being spent than was spent last year. The noble Lord compared the sum of £13,000 spent last year with the £19,000 down for this year, but I think his comparison is not correct. The actual sum really spent for this purpose last year was only about £5,000, and therefore the increase to £19,000 this year marks a very considerable advance.

It is perfectly true that there is an indisposition, not, I think, on the part of public Offices generally, but of the Treasury, to expend large sums in experiments of this kind. That is one of the disadvantages, if you will have it so, under which we labour from the form of Parliamentary government under which we live, and, I hope, prosper. Other countries where the Estimates are not so closely scrutinised as they are here, find it easier, perhaps, to spend large sums on matters of this kind; but I do assure the noble Lord that he is not right in saying that this very important question is pooh-poohed by the War Office in this country. He must have been, I think, led astray by some obiter dicta or casual remarks of some particular individual which may have been repeated to him, and which may, perhaps, have misled him as to the general attitude of the Department.

The noble Lord asks for a Return of the expenditure of foreign Governments on these matters. I do not know whether the noble Lord desires to have the figures circulated, but I shall be very happy to read them now so far as I possess them. In the year 1908, in France the ordinary expenditure was £7,000, the extraordinary expenditure £12,000, and for the upkeep of ballooning units £28,500, being a total of £47,500. In Germany the Home Office Vote for the Zeppelin airship was £107,500; no figure is given for upkeep of balloon material, but the annual expenditure on balloon battalions was £ 26,231, making a total of £133,731. It is also true, as the noble Lord mentioned, that a large sum was raised by private subscription after the great national enthusiasm excited by Count Zeppelin's voyage down the Rhine. In Austria-Hungary the ordinary expenditure was £3,000, and the extraordinary £2,500. That represents the annual instalment of a sum of £50,000 which was voted for this purpose.

The policy of the War Office and the Admiralty, but, in particular, as regards this one matter the War Office, has been to enlist private enterprise as far as possible in learning more about this exceedingly important subject. I think it would be simpler, although I believe it is not strictly in order, if I were to quote the words of the Secretary of State in another place. My right hon. friend said— We think that probably we have reached a stage when progress will be more rapidly made by dealing with private inventors than if we confined ourselves to the work of our own very capable officials, who have not the facilities which many private inventors have.

My right hon. friend was there speaking only of aëroplanes and not of dirigible balloons, in which experiments are being carried out both by the War Office and by the Admiralty. There is no doubt that this in the future may be a question of great gravity for this country. It is impossible to dispute that. I do not attempt to enter into the forecasts made by the noble Lord opposite, but it is quite evident that the conditions of warfare may be, at any rate, to a very considerable extent, almost revolutionised by these inventions, and therefore we are obliged to keep a close watch upon what is going on in other countries.

I think the noble Lord rather underestimated the fact that we do, at any rate so far as the possibilities of the future are concerned, gain something from the experience of other countries. Other countries have gained experience from us, for instance in the case of submarine boats. Although not the pioneers, we have gone very far ahead in submarine boats, but as we continue to improve our submarines I have no doubt foreign countries will be able to improve theirs in proportion. Therefore, it is hardly fair to argue as though the experience of foreign countries might not, at any rate to a certain extent—I do not say entirely—be applied to our own future operations. But, as I said, it is a very serious matter. Anything which tends to diminish the advantage that we have enjoyed through so many hundred years of history from our insular position is, of course, of the greatest possible concern; and I only desire once more to assure the noble Lord that he need not be afraid that any of the Departments concerned will ignore this matter or allow it to slip. I can assure him also that if increased expenditure is found to be necessary in the future for this purpose, the money will be forthcoming. I can only say, in conclusion, that I shall look forward to seeing the noble Lord arrive at your Lordships' House in his aëroplane; and, if the House is to be besieged, as it sometimes has been lately, by those who desire to take part in sending Members to another place, we shall all be glad to join the noble Lord in that method of approach.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.

House adjourned at five minutes before Six o'clock, till to-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.