HL Deb 06 December 1911 vol 10 cc649-56

THE EARL OF HARDWICKE rose to ask His Majesty's Government, in view of the practical demonstration of the utility of aeroplanes in warfare in Tripoli, and in the French, German, and Roumanian manœuvres, and in view of the fact that France already has at her disposal between 200 or 300 war-planes and military pilots, and in view of the fact that Germany has at least fifty qualified military aviators besides numerous others in training, and not less than four military schools, and considering that Great Britain leas only six officer aviators and only two serviceable aeroplanes, whether the Government will now make a statement of its policy with regard to the training of the necessary mechanics, pilots, and military observers and the provision and maintenance in war of sufficient aircraft. so as to remove the serious disadvantage which we at present suffer in this respect; and to ask if the Government propose to give any practical encouragement to the manufacturers of this country with a view to enable them to supply the Government with British built machines.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, before putting the Question that stands in my name I wish to make a correction which I do not think really materially alters the significance of the statement I make in the first paragraph. That correction is this. I state that Great Britain has only six aviation officers and two serviceable aeroplanes. I beg now to correct that statement. Great Britain, I am informed, has thirteen aeroplanes, two of which, if I may borrow a term which is well known in naval circles, might be relegated to Rotten Row; eight, I believe, can be considered serviceable—serviceable, that is, for training purposes. They lack speed, and I do not think they would pass those tests that were lately carried out at the instigation of the French Government. Three you have which are ready to take the field at any moment. I do not think that has materially altered the statement in my Question. With those facts that I have laid down, which I believe are substantially correct, surely it is chargeable to the Government that it shows apathy and a deplorable lack of enterprise when we consider what our neighbours in France and other. Continental countries possess. I do not mean to say that I know all the facts of the case, and I have no very strong indictment to make against the War Office, because I know that in the War Office there are a number of people, and even some of the heads, who realise the enormous potentialities of this new adjunct of war. I lay the charge at the door of the Treasury, and that I believe to be warranted by the substantial facts. I now put the Question which stands in my name.


My Lords, the noble Earl has put the Question standing in his mime with a preface in which he refers to our apathy compared with Continental Powers, and he very kindly put the blame on the Treasury. But I do not think the blame should be put on the Treasury. If there is any blame at all it is to be put upon us at the War Office and upon the Admiralty. The Treasury has never stood hi the way of this matter. On the contrary, the Treasury has given us the greatest scientific establishment in the world for investigating air problems—the establishment at Teddington—whieh ought to give us a very admirably-equipped department at Aldershot, and which has done and is doing very valuable work. The Treasury has never stood in our way in any respect.

I myself feel very great responsibility for the spending of public money. I am always ready to spend it, and spend it with the utmost freedom, when I know how to get good results out of it; but there is one thing which I never will listen to as long as I am responsible, and that is to lavish money in the hope that something will come of it. It is quite true that in this country we are behind, but not a great deal behind, with this problem. But there are reasons for that. First of all, nothing develops your aviation department so much as an enormous Army which has to operate within a restricted field and on ground which is more or less level, and where your air service is required as part of that enormous Army organisation. In France and in Germany they have these conditions, and the result is that the air service has responded to the demands of the Army. With us it is quite different. We require our air service for sea purposes; we require it for the purposes of a comparatively small Army—a very small Army compared to those Continental Armies—and one which has to go abroad, and a large part of which is constantly at a great distance. You cannot have that condition of things without its reacting on the mode of your preparations, and I think perhaps the fact that we have not the acute military problem of the Continent, or, at any rate, the problem on the same extensive scale, has had a good deal to do with another cause which has retarded aviation in this country, and that is that the public have not applied themselves to it in the practical way that has been the case in France and in Germany.

I will indicate some of the causes which make it difficult for Ministers to know exactly how they ought to stand in the matter. We set to work on this problem two or three years ago, and the first thing we did was to endeavour to acquire the requisite scientific knowledge. That to a great extent we have done, but the whole field of air work proves to be still in a very undefined condition. I do not mean for us merely; I mean everywhere. Germany is apparently changing the type of her airships. She seems to be turning, as France has turned, from the airship to the aeroplane. But it is by no means certain that an intermediate type of small airship will not prove to be of great value, and that problem appears to be one on which foreign countries are working, as we are working on it. It is a great mistake to suppose that abroad they have made up their minds definitely as to the line on which they are working. They are making experiments and on a huger scale than we are, because they have Armies of much greater size to work for. But at this moment I doubt whether there is any country that could tell what the ultimate form of air craft will be. When we look at things from a distance they appear much better than when close, and we see flaws which I admit to be very great in our organisation but which get much magnified in comparison with other countries because we are looking very close. We have twelve aeroplanes, and three more under construction at the present time. Of these aeroplanes it is difficult to say how many are suitable for war. We have been buying a variety of different types, a variety within these figures, in order to see which is the best. Some of them undoubtedly are as good aeroplanes as we could buy. The noble Earl put them, I think, at eight as serviceable for war.


No, only three that would go into the fighting line.


Well, my information, which I should be sorry to put forward dogmatically, is that a larger number would be good for the fighting line. But there arc some of those that are more adapted for practice than for fighting. We are buying steadily, and it is not a question of money. We have enough money tinder the present Estimates to buy five times the number of aeroplanes that we have at the present time. It is only a question of what is the best type to buy, and that is by no means an easy thing to determine. Aeroplanes change almost every month, and the large numbers which they have on the Continent would, I am afraid, if they were subjected to the close scrutiny of the noble Earl, come under quite as just criticism as he has applied to our numbers. As I say, we have twelve, of which I should say that a good many, or considerably more than the three the noble Earl mentions, are serviceable for war, while others are adapted for practice; and some are under construction. That is nothing like enough, I agree. To compare with Continental numbers we should have a considerably greater number. Then the noble Earl asks about dirigibles, and I will tell him about that.


I beg the noble Viscount's pardon; I did not put a question about that.


Then I will not dwell upon it. The reason I referred to them was that I thought the noble Earl meant to cover them by this Question, because he uses the word "aircraft" little lower down. Anyhow, we have in construction at the present time several airships. We have one actually working, and a second with which we have made experiments and this is incapacitated just now. Then there is a third, the "Delta," which is practically constructed; certain difficulties are being put right in it. For the fourth the materials are collected, and we have a very efficient factory which is working under Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman, with a very good staff, which is endeavouring to evolve the best type of small dirigible. I should be very grateful if the noble Earl could tell me what is the best type of small dirigible. If he cannot, nobody else can. We have to proceed experimentally in these matters.

Now I come to what has been done about officers. As the noble Earl knows, we have recently constituted an Air Battalion, which has a present strength of 171–14 officers and 135 rank and file, besides warrant officers, sergeants, and so on. Of these officers actually serving at the present time with the Air Battalion there are seven who have been trained in flying. There are thirteen other officers who have pilot certificates, and who have asked to be employed in connection with this battalion; ten of them are Regulars, two Special Reservists, and one retired. Then there are several more officers who have taken pilot certificates but have not at present asked for employment. A notable case is that of General Henderson, Staff Officer to the Inspector-General of the Forces, who is so keenly interested in this matter that he has taken out a pilot's certificate and qualified himself. Then there are several others. We are going, I agree, not very fast, but we are moving. We have a certain number of aeroplanes for which we have got these officers. The General Staff has defined the test we should work up to and the objects at which we have to aim, and we are now addressing ourselves to the question, which I think is a very important one, of how far we can work our establishment and our training schools along with the Navy. With a very small Army relatively, such as we possess, it is very desirable in order to develop to the utmost the potentialities of your service that you should work it along with the Navy, and we are considering that question at the present time in a practical form.

I think I have now answered most of the questions which the noble Earl put to me, except the one at the end. We have under practical consideration the proposal to offer prizes to manufacturers. The noble Earl says "the manufacturers of this country." As soon as we have got the type right our policy will be to manufacture these aero- planes in this country, because they are like war material which is different from other material. That will be done, not with any particular desire to have everything manufactured in this country, but for the simple reason that it is war material and you cannot get it elsewhere in time of war. As for the design, that is too important a matter to limit. The first consideration is to get the very best design for a war aeroplane that you can, and I do not at all tie the Department which I represent to limit itself for designs to British manufacturers. We shall see how that works out, and we shall consider it with perfect freedom.

I will only add, in conclusion, that slowly as we are going we have given a great deal of time to this matter in conjunction with my right hon. friend the Civil Member, Colonel Seely, who is deeply interested in this question, and the Staff Officers at the War Office, and I should be very much puzzled to find a means of going faster. We are moving. I agree that the service as yet is very inadequate, but the difficulties for us are greater than they are in any other country. Slowly we are evolving things. In the case of motor cars this country was for a long time behind, but is now quite as well placed as any other country; and I have very little doubt that, with the practical genius of our race, we shall evolve our own type of aircraft which will be suitable to the conjoint requirements of our small Army and our great Navy.


My Lords, after hearing the noble Viscount's answer to the Questions I have put I feel rather like the man who has asked for a whole loaf and is only allowed a bite of the loaf. As far as I can see, my noble friend puts this country in regard to the Army on the plane of Roumania. With all due respect to that virile State, Roumania is not, I suppose, to-day, in aerial matters better than we are. I know it is the idea of the War Office in a certain way to emulate our neighbours the French. They are going to give a competition. Well, it is questionable whether the value will be very great that is to be gained by it. There is no doubt in the mind of anyone who has really followed aviation that aviation has come to stay. It has also become an adjunct to the Army. There is no doubt of that. That is realized by the War Office. In view of that I cannot see why this apathy should still exist. Why not take a leaf out of the pages of the French? Why not help the industry to-clay? The French are in the forefront in this new science. It is a growing industry. And why are the French in the forefront? Because they have been subsidised by their Government. You never have shown any indication that you mean to help our manufacturers. We have to look to private enterprise in these matters. I do not wish to make any indictment, or to go into any searching statement, as to the way in which the money has been spent. I will make a particular statement—perhaps I had better not. But you had a considerable sum of money, and you have nothing to show for it. The sum of £80,000 has been expended in doles by Parliament, and you have nothing material to show for it. I will not say more, but I can assure the noble Viscount that there is a very strong feeling in the country on this subject amongst those who really know. They regard the apathy that is shown towards this question in this country as remarkable.


My Lords, all my official experience and prejudices as ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer would induce me to refrain from pressing the War Department in regard to anything that would involve unnecessary expenditure. But I do think that in this matter there has been very slow progress indeed, and that my noble friend behind me is well advised in calling the attention of your Lordships to the subject. When I listened to the speech of the noble Viscount opposite I confess I was not very much encouraged to hope that progress, which has been slow in the past, will be more rapid in the future. The noble Viscount appeared to me to be waiting for some design of perfection in this matter. Now, that has never been the policy of the Navy, and quite rightly, too. I remember ships built on designs which were considered reasonably good but which it was hoped in future years to improve upon, in order that we might be provided with what at any rate was the best that could be obtained at that time. Perhaps it might appear that hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds have been wasted in that way, but it would never have done to have been unprepared if the moment had arisen when the force was wanted; and I would venture to tell the noble Viscount opposite that I am afraid under present circumstances if we should un- fortunately he involved in war we should be quite unprepared with regard to appliances of the kind which have been the subject of discussion. I do hope, therefore, that the War Office will take care that there is some provision in respect of aviation without waiting for sonic possible design in the future which may not be attained until it is too late.