HL Deb 29 April 1913 vol 14 cc336-46

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether a Return can be laid upon the Table of the House showing the number of (1) dirigibles, (2) aeroplanes, (3) hydro-aeroplanes now possessed by the chief countries of the world, and the amount of expenditure for military or naval aviation proposed during the year from 1st May, 1913.

The noble Lord said: My Lords it is now some time since we had a discussion in this House on this question, and I think I am justified in bringing before you the progress that has since taken place in aviation and the necessity there is for our taking careful note of what the other Powers are doing and preparing ourselves for any emergency. Wonderful progress has been made in aviation during the last two years, and we cannot afford to ignore the developments that have taken place. It might have been said—in fact it was said—in the early days by many persons well qualified to judge that it would be many years before, either from the point of view of the Admiralty or of the War Office, it would be necessary to take cognisance of what was being done; but I venture to say that the very large, and in many cases very efficient, aerial armaments of foreign Powers make it imperative that the Government of this country should consider the question as it now stands, and also as it is likely to be in the near future.

I should like to make it quite plain at the outset that in calling attention to this matter I do so in no Party spirit. Some remarks which I made a few days ago were taken as an attack on the War Office, and to some extent, possibly, on the Admiralty, with regard to certain figures and facts which they had put before us. That, however, was not my intention. My desire was merely to call public attention to the importance of studying these matters, and the figures which I gave, and which I was only too glad afterwards to correct owing to information afforded by the Secretary of State and his advisers, were supplied to me by an informant who until then I thought was a very safe source of information.

To-day I invite your Lordships to consider some of the new problems which have arisen since we last had a debate on this subject. We have now to consider what are the chances of sky power being used in the next war. I prefer the term "sky power" to that of air power because it is a more appropriate term. We do not talk, for instance, of water power but of sea power, and I think it would be convenient if in future it became our custom to talk, not of air power, but of sky power. We have now got to the stage in which we have not only to look upon both dirigibles and aeroplanes as a means of scouting, whereby very valuable intelligence can be conveyed to the commander of a fleet or an army, but we have also to consider whet her they are not in themselves becoming formidable as a means of offence.

I quite agree that for many years to come probably the chief value of both dirigibles and aeroplanes will be from the point of view of scouting. It will be possible on land for a skilled pilot to ascertain the dispositions of an enemy's army. It will be possible for him by day in a fog or in rain or in a cloud, and by night under cover of darkness, to approach quite close to the headquarters of the enemy, and in some cases, with a little knowledge of the country over which he is passing, to locate more or less the disposition of the enemy's forces. But there is an even more serious problem when we come to naval operations. It will be possible for any Power with a powerful fleet to send in front of that fleet dirigibles, and to a certain extent aeroplanes and hydro-aeroplanes, for the purpose of finding out whether they are nearing the enemy's fleet or for finding out the disposition of the enemy's fleet, and whether it consists of battleships, cruisers, or whatever it may be. Any Power which had a sea-board between the Bay of Biscay and the Baltic could ascertain within a few hours where the British Fleet was lying, whether it was at Dover, at Spithead, or iii the North Sea, or wherever it might be; and that danger has become a greater one since dirigibles are able to stay in the air a much longer time now than formerly, and attain a speed of anything between forty and fifty miles an hour, a speed which before long, in my opinion, will be exceeded. That has made them a most valuable agency for scouting, and we must look upon that as being a serious menace to our sea power.

Before long not only will both dirigibles and aeroplanes be used for intelligence work, but possibly for purposes of offence. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware that some of these large dirigibles can take up weights up to ten tons, and it is obvious that if only five tons el explosives were dropped at inconvenient places it would produce a state of dismay and a scene of ruin which could hardly be paralleled by any artillery work. That is a new and a serious problem which we have to consider. To civilised life nerves are as important as muscles. Our complicated civilised life is dependent upon the smooth and automatic working of transport or means of communication, banks, the Stock Exchange, telegraphs and telephones, the distribution of food, and so on, and if those were to be interfered with you would have a state of panic and you might have a condition of things in which a revolution, a social uprising, would take place which would be difficult to quell, and which would add to the horrors of war. An inland town like Birmingham or Leicester is just as vulnerable now as is London or Portsmouth. The fact is that with the great range of dirigibles nowadays there is no town in this comparatively small island of England, there is no place in your manufacturing districts, which could be considered safe, and which would not be liable to serious damage from explosives dropped from above; whilst the amount of damage that might be done in the case of our arsenals would be of the most serious description.

I do not wish to exaggerate the possibilities, but I submit that these are problems which ought to be very carefully considered both by the War Staff at the Admiralty and by the General Staff at the War Office, They must obviously at the present moment be largely matters of conjecture, but we are on the eve of treat developments in this direction and should not lag behind our rivals on the Continent, with whom we may be on friendly terms to-day but with whom we may find ourselves in contact at some future date. Then we have to consider the terrible state of panic to which the average citizen would be reduced if be thought that danger might come out of the sky. Human beings have been accustomed for centuries to fighting by land or by sea. Attacks from the sky would be a new and dreadful form of war, and no one knows what would be the effect upon large masses of our population of the arrival of a fleet of dirigibles carrying bombs. Therefore this is a danger which it is no use trying to blink. One of the results would be the shattering to a large extent of the nerves of our population. It would be like the case of a man whose nerves had been out of order although his muscles had not been affected. I can quite imagine a case in which the Navy would still be more or less supreme at sea and in which the Army on land was quite ready to meet any invader, yet with more or less undefeated naval and military forces you might have invasion by a very large number of dirigibles which would, by its very irritation and the panic to which it would give rise, do more to shake the country than a definite momentary defeat by sea or land. That is a point which I am sure will be considered by the War Office and the Admiralty and also by the Committee of Imperial Defence.

It is said by those who wish to minimise the danger that we have a few good guns which can shoot vertically, and which would be able to bring down dirigibles from the sky in the same way as noble Lords are able to bring down pheasants over trees. It may be possible that sooner or later we shall have some form of shell bursting in the air at a considerable altitude which could make a serious attack on dirigibles and aeroplanes, but that is some way off, and if the information is correct which I get from France and Germany, where a great deal of special attention has been given to guns versus dirigibles, it is only for very local and partial purposes that we can reckon on artillery to combat dirigibles or aeroplanes. I do not deny that we might have the great dockyards and certain other areas covered by special guns. It is conceivable that we might protect the locality of the Government offices at Westminster and the great arsenals in the same way, but it would be impossible to count on artillery as an entire means of defence against anything that might come through the air.

There is only one proper way of meeting this new situation. We must meet like with like. If there is danger in the future of our being invaded by dirigibles or aeroplanes, we must have an adequate number of both kinds of aircraft in order to defend ourselves. It is possible that by means of dirigibles and aeroplanes the movements of our Fleet may be reported from various points to foreign Powers and its utility thereby to a large extent neutralised. It is important, therefore, that we should have an adequate number of these aircraft to be able to detect the movements of foreign fleets. There are other points of danger worthy of consideration. There are, as noble Lords know, at the mouth of the Thames depots for oil, petrol, and similar dangerous products, which if once exploded might come up the Thames on a flood tide, setting fire to all the warehouses on the river. There are other depots containing gunpowder where the contingency would be likewise serious.

I know it may be said that criticism without suggestions is a barren method of controversy. Therefore I am going to be bold enough to submit some suggestions for the consideration of the War Office and the Admiralty. I think we must all admit, especially in the matter of dirigibles but also in the matter of aeroplanes, that we are greatly behind every other first-class Power. Whether that is a disadvantage which can be rapidly remedied I am not prepared to say at the moment. I am inclined to think it can be to a large extent. But just as we were behind in the early days with regard to motor-cars we are behind in a similar way now. As a nation we are deficient in imagination, and inclined to be too complacent. The result is that we do not often take up new movements or study new subjects until other people have got well ahead of us. In regard to this question of aerial invasion or sky power, given trained pilots it would not take us very long to build an adequate sky fleet; and, from the money point. of view, we can get 2,400 aeroplanes for the cost of one super-Dreadnought, and you could get a very great number of dirigibles for the same money; so that even if we urge on the Government, as some of us do, that a sum greater than the£500,000 which has been promised should be spent this year, we are not asking for innumerable millions. I agree that it would not be wise to spend a great deal of money and commit ourselves to the present type of dirigible or aeroplane, which is largely experimental.

But what is important is that we should train men for the three services—hydro-aeroplanes, aeroplanes, and dirigibles—so that in course of time we should get a number of trained men who would be invaluable in case of war. At the present moment we have three dirigibles belonging to the War Office and I am told one belonging to the Admiralty; and the War Office up to a few days ago, I think, could claim somewhere between 110 and 120 aeroplanes. The Admiralty have, I believe, or will have before July 1, seventy-five Hydro-aeroplanes. From that you must deduct the number of inefficients, which you can never put at less than '25 per cent., for always about a quarter of your aeroplanes and hydro-aeroplanes will be out of service. Even in the case of one of the best-known engines, after six or seven hours running the engine has to be stopped and cleaned, so that your aeroplanes must come into dock very often and a deduction must be made from the active list of 25 per cent. I admit that the same percentage must he deducted from the foreign figures as well. The question of pilots is a more serious one than the actual number of aeroplanes. Housing, transport, and pilots are, in my opinion, as important as, if not more important than, the actual number of aeroplanes If you are going to have an efficient sky force you must have at least a margin of 50 per cent. of pilots. I am sure the House has noticed with regret that there have been no fewer than two deaths within a week of to-day in the Royal Plying Corps. We cannot pay too great a tribute of admiration to those who, for the national honour and with the pluck which has always distinguished young Englishmen, persevere in this new science, and we hope that in the future a safer kind of machine will be invented.

The question of pilots is, as I have said, one of the difficulties which we have to face, and it is not easy to see how we are going to obtain more. I think that better financial terms might be given them, and I suggest that something in the nature of the French system might be considered. Under the French system not only do officers and men who engage in this work receive special pay, but in addition they have a gratuity for the number of hours they are in the air and the work actually done. This amounts to a considerable sum in many cases, and constitutes a great inducement to men who have to consider the financial side. Another most important addition would be in the direction of training schools, of which I do not think we have half enough. The chief Army one on Salisbury Plain has means of training for thirty pilots at the same moment, and they have to go through a three months course. It is obvious, therefore, that you can only train there 120 pilots a year—a ridiculous number if you are thinking of having 700 aeroplanes. We want a great many stations in different parts of the country so that there will be air men in every district who will be thoroughly familiar with that particular part of England.

Before I pass on may I pay a tribute to the Admiralty, who have been on the whole a great deal more energetic than the War Office, and I believe that, the new stations which they have established at different points on the coast for their hydro-aeroplane service will be most useful. I press upon the Government very earnestly the necessity of having more aeroplane stations, and of making arrangements for the training of more pilots. Besides that we want a great many more hangars and more housing accommodation. Supposing the Government were to order a couple of hundred more aeroplanes to-morrow they would have to put up housing accommodation. I do not think they have half enough housing accommodation at the present moment. Again, they have very little means of transport. Perhaps some noble Lords have seen aeroplanes being towed down a road by a motor-car. There ought to be arrangements made for proper movable transport capable of going along the road at a quick speed. I feel in this matter that the Government have not been energetic enough in taking up this subject of military and naval aviation. It is quite true that public opinion has lagged behind, and to some extent public opinion must be blamed, because it is not so easy to move without having public opinion behind you. But public opinion has become stirred at last, and owing to recent achievements and the various prizes offered by newspapers and others, I think public opinion would be entirely in favour, irrespective of Party, of the Government devoting more attention to this subject.

In regard to the sky fleets of foreign Powers, I have here a few figures which may interest your Lordships. I have done my best to check the figures from private and public sources, and I believe them to be more or less correct. In Germany there are 14 public and 10 private dirigibles, most of them of considerable size, many of them of the well-known Zeppelin type and some of them very up-to-date in machinery. It is difficult to ascertain the number of aeroplanes privately and publicly-owned in Germany, but my information is that there are 423, and I have received recent information that both at Heligoland and on the shores of the Baltic hydro-aeroplane stations are being established by Germany—ten at Heligoland and fifteen on the shores of the Baltic. France has now 20 public and private dirigibles which she could put in service, and 585 aeroplanes—the largest number owned by any foreign Power. I cannot ascertain that she has any hydro-aeroplanes, but I was told at Monaco the other day that both at Toulon and at Brest preparations were being made for a considerable number of hydro-aeroplanes. It is difficult to get information in regard to Russia, but it is known that Russia has 12 airships, public and private, and somewhere about 230 aeroplanes, but no hydro-aeroplanes. Austria has 4 public and 2 privately-owned dirigibles, and somewhere about 135 aeroplanes; while smaller countries such as Spain, Italy, Servia, Brazil, and Japan have each of them got both dirigibles and aeroplanes, and are preparing in this year's Estimates for a much larger expenditure. Perhaps a better test than mere numbers are the financial Estimates of foreign Powers. Germany proposes to spend a little Over£7,000,000 in the coming year on dirigibles and aeroplanes; France proposes to spend£1,500,000; Russia,£1,000,000; Great Britain,£501,000; Italy,£450,000; and Japan,£250,000. I only bring forward these figures to show how very seriously this question is being regarded abroad, and the necessity there is for the Government to give this subject their most earnest consideration.

I hope your Lordships realise what has been done quite lately. I saw the other day the design of an airship which I believe to be a perfectly practicable one—the War Office and the Admiralty know about it—and which is better than the Zeppelin or any foreign airship, and I hope it will be tried. Then there are speeds up to 50 miles an hour being attained by airships through still air, an advance of 25 miles an hour since I last spoke on this subject in your Lordships' House. Aeroplanes have attained Li speed of 92 miles an hour, which is about double the greatest speed that had been attained when I was speaking in your Lordships' House two years ago. Only to-day I received news of a non-stop aeroplane flight from Biarritz to Kollum in the north of Holland—937 miles in one flight; and my friend Mr. Hamel has flown from Dover to Cologne—245 miles—in a few hours. These are therefore going out of the realm of mere experiment and becoming practical machines with which we shall have to reckon. We must realise that we are only at the beginning of huge developments in this direction, and His Majesty's Government will be well advised if they give the whole subject, both by land and sea, their most careful and serious consideration.


The interesting speech to which we have just listened will have reminded many of your Lordships of a similar speech which the noble Lord delivered in this House on a previous occasion dealing with the same subject. His remarks to-day afford one more proof of the fact that we in this Assembly are fortunate enough to possess experts in, I believe, every branch of science and art; and no one who listened to the noble Lord could deny that we have in him one of the great experts of this country on the question of aviation. I find myself, therefore, the more unfortunate in being called upon to reply to him in the absence of my noble friend (Lord Herschell) who generally answers on behalf of the War Office, and who, although better, I am afraid will be unable to attend this House until after the Whitsuntide recess.

I can assure the noble Lord, whose Question was no doubt put on the Paper rather as a peg upon which to hang his interesting speech, that the various points which he has raised shall be duly considered by the War Office. With many of his remarks we should all wish to associate ourselves, especially in the tribute which he paid to those gallant men who are always ready to risk their lives in the air fleet. We have every reason to be proud of the fact that we seem able to discover an unfailing supply of men who are ready to take the risks involved in this most perilous service.

As to the Return for which the noble Lord asked, it appeared to me that he supplied it himself in the course of his remarks. The particulars he gave were probably as good as, if not better than, any which could be supplied by the War Office; for with real and characteristic fullness the noble Lord has gone into all the available sources of information in order to ascertain the state of things in other countries. But I will refer the matter to the War Office, and ask them whether they are able to improve on the noble Lord's figures; and after consulting with them I should be glad if he would allow me to communicate with him again stating what information the War Office possess on the matter.


I thank the noble Earl for what he has said. I shall be glad to communicate, as I habitually do from time to time, any figures and facts in my possession; but it would be as well if the Government could produce an annual Return to Parliament on this subject. There was one point that I omitted to refer to in the observations which I addressed to your Lordships just now. I hope the noble Earl will look into the question of the remuneration of seamen whose duties consist in helping in these matters. I am informed that, whilst they have had an increase of pay, in some cases the increase is not considered sufficient. Again, I am told that on the part of the skilled mechanics in the Army whose services are necessary in the construction and housing of these very fragile machines there is a great deal of grievance on the ground that their very special work is not adequately remunerated. Perhaps the noble Earl will look into both those questions.


Certainly they shall be looked into.