HL Deb 22 October 1918 vol 31 cc754-68

LORD CRANMORE AND BROWNE had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether any, and if so what, precautions have been or are being taken to protect the R.M. steamers plying between Holyhead and Kingstown.
  2. 2. Whether it is proposed to make provision for the widows and orphans of officers and members of the crew of the R.M. S.S. "Leinster" who perished on 10th October; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, several questions have been asked in the House of Commons on the subject of the sinking of the "Leinster," but the answers which were given appear to me to have been so unsatisfactory that I have no hesitation in raising the matter again in your Lordships' House. It has been suggested to me that in doing so I am making an attack on the Navy. I think it is unnecessary to disclaim any such intention. No one has a greater admiration than I have for the wonderful work which has been done by the Navy during the four years of the war; no one appreciates more fully than I do the toil, through weary days and sleepless nights, to protect this country from danger, to convoy our soldiers and sailors and those of the Allies, as well as munitions, to foreign countries, and to provide us with those necessities without which it would have been impossible to have carried on the war. Therefore if any mistake has been made with regard to this particular question, I do not think the blame falls on the Admiralty alone; it must be shared equally by the War Office, the Board of Trade, and the Post Office.

But, after all, the question is not to appraise the measure of blame to any of these Departments, but rather to see what were the measures which were taken to provide for the safety of the ships plying between England and Ireland, and, if possible, to make arrangements for greater precautions in the future, so that it may be impossible that such a disaster should occur again. The facts are known to all your Lordships. The mail steamship "Leinster" left Kingstown for Holyhead about 9 o'clock on the morning of October 10, and when she was about twelve miles out from Kingstown she was torpedoed by a German submarine. The first submarine appears to have crippled but not very seriously to have injured her, for it was said by survivors that it was hoped she might be towed back to harbour. But five minutes afterwards another torpedo was launched, which exploded amidships, and in two minutes more the "Leinster" had gone to the bottom—that is, within seven minutes of the first torpedo being fired nothing was left of the "Leinster" but a few boats, some spars and wreckage, and about 600 to 700 human beings struggling for their lives in the angry waves. There they continued, some people think for an hour and ten minutes, others for two hours, before any help appeared. At the end of that time a destroyer came on the scene, and proceeded to rescue those of the passengers and crew who still survived.

The Admiralty have expressed their deep regret that such a misfortune should have occurred, and have stated that all reasonable precautions were taken to safeguard the passage of that ship and of the other Royal Mail boats between the two ports. Furthermore, they give four particular ways in which protection was granted. In the first place they state that "at the time of the accident the faster of the escort craft were patrolling the mail route, and, on the distress signal being given, one of the two destroyers in close proximity, whilst proceeding with all dispatch to the scene, had her fore-bridge wrecked when attempting to steam between nineteen and twenty knots." If a destroyer had been at Holyhead it would only have been thirty miles off the vessel. If the destroyer was anywhere nearer than Holyhead, it is curious that she should take so long to reach the scene of the disaster. The second reason given was that the "Leinster" travels faster than any destroyer which the Admiralty have. Dr. Macnamara stated that the "Leinster" was proceeding at the rate of twenty-three and a-hall knots. I am anxious to know whether the chart which gives particulars of the pace travelled by these boats confirms that statement. I am led to believe that she was not going much above twenty or twenty-one knots. He states that no destroyer could go more than nineteen or twenty knots and, as I have just read to your Lordships, that even at that pace in such a heavy sea the destroyer suffered serious damage. In the third place, he states that in the case of vessels proceeding at as fast a pace as the "Leinster" it is safer for them to trust to the speed which they travel rather than to travel at a slower pace in order that the destroyer may keep pace with them. Last of all, he pointed out that even in a convoy a vessel has not absolute safety, and he instanced the ship "Justitia" which was bring convoyed and which was sunk by submarines.

It is rather presumptuous of a layman to attempt to criticise statements which are made by the Admiralty, but I am going to venture to make some reply to the reasons which have been put forward. In the first place, with regard to the statement about the faster patrol vessels, may I say that the second officer of the "Ulster" states that during the whole passage from Holyhead that morning he did not pass a patrol of any kind. Secondly, with regard to the fact that the "Leinster" travels faster than destroyers, I hardly think that it can be contended that we have no destroyers which go no faster than nineteen knots; in fact, when the Royal Mail ship "Ulster" crossed over she was escorted by an American destroyer which, in the words of a passenger on board the boat, "played round the mail ship," apparently going at the rate of nearly thirty-five knots. It may be quite true that these faster destroyers are used for the purpose of convoying troops from the United States, or for other naval purposes which are even more important than safeguarding passengers between Ireland and England, but I think it ought to be plainly stated that that is the case, and that they are not available for the purpose of escorting the Royal Mail ships. Nor should the public be left under the supposition that we have no destroyers which can go no faster than nineteen knots, and then with great difficulty.

The third explanation which is put forward is that it is safer for fast vessels like the "Leinster" to travel unescorted, trusting in their own speed, rather than to proceed at a slower pace supported by destroyers. I should like to put forward three reasons against this suggestion. In the first place, we must not forget that the first torpedo which was fired at the "Leinster" was not successful in sinking her. It only crippled her, and I very much doubt whether, if she had been escorted by a destroyer, she would have been fired at at all; certainly, if she had been fired at I think that it is almost certain (if she had been escorted) the second torpedo would not have been launched. On the contrary the U-boat, seeing a destroyer escorting the mail ship, would have hurried to get away in case she should be sunk herself, instead of manœuvring to get herself in position to launch after five minutes a second torpedo which succeeded in sending the "Leinster" to the bottom. In the second place it must not be forgotten, even if she had been successful in sinking the "Leinster," that there would have been a destroyer there ready to pick up the survivors, instead of leaving them to battle in an angry sea for one or two hours before they could be rescued. Thirdly, and I think this is the most important reason of all, the destroyer would have been able to be of use in sending S.O.S. signals in all directions. It is not generally known that it was not the "Leinster" which sent out the S.O.S. signal that reached the rescuing boats. I believe that something must have taken place when the boat was torpedoed which interfered with her wireless signalling apparatus, because she was only able to send out a very faint call that was heard by her sister ship the "Ulster" which was only two or three-miles off. The "Ulster" repeated the signal to Kingstown and elsewhere, and it was thus that the S.O.S. signal was transmitted. I think that proof of this is to be found in the reply of Dr. Macnamara, when he states that the S.O.S. signal went out at 9.25 and was only received at Kingstown at 9.50—twenty-five minutes later.

I should like your Lordships to reflect how very narrowly we escaped a very much greater calamity, for only three minutes before the "Leinster" was torpedoed she was passed, within three-quarters of a mile, by the "Ulster." If the U-boat had come to the surface at that time and discharged a torpedo, in all probability both ships would have been sunk, and it is very probable that the S.O.S. signal would not have been sent out. It would then have been a case of what the Germans express a wish for—spurlos versenkt—and we should have to mourn fifteen-hundred victims instead of five hundred. The last instance which was given by Dr. Macnamara was the case of the "Justitia" having been sunk when under convoy. If my noble friend who is going to reply will tell me that since the "Justitia" was sunk the Admiralty have given up the system of convoy, finding it of no use, will allow that there is something in that argument; otherwise it seems to me that, it falls to the ground. We must remember that the "Justitia" was a ship of a very different class from the "Leinster," and was one of a kind which the German Government are much more anxious to sink. From what I have heard, it was: probably attacked by several submarines instead of by one. Of course, there must be cases where, when U-boats attack a convoy, one boat can be sunk, but the. U-boat commander must be prepared for the probability that he in turn will be sent to the bottom. Fortunately very few U-boat commanders are ready to lead such a forlorn hope.

I see that it was stated in another place that although the Royal Mail boats have been travelling this route for four years this is the first one to be sunk. That is. quite true, but it is not the first one against which an attempt has been made. Many attempts have been made to sink these boats. I myself crossed on the "Leinster" two days before she was sunk, and I was told by one of the officials on board that an attempt had been made on the previous day to torpedo her. I do not know if that is the case, but perhaps my noble friend will be able to tell me whether my information is correct. At any rate it is commonly believed in Ireland, and there is no doubt that the directors of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company themselves hold very strong views on the subject. I believe that my noble friend will confirm me when I say that within the last twenty-four hours the Admiralty have received a very strong communication from them urging the necessity for protection for these boats. I have not put any suggestion of the kind on the Paper, but I cannot help thinking that it would be most useful if a small Committee were appointed to go into this matter.

I see that Dr. Macnamara stated that the Admiralty would be very glad for this to be done, were it not that it would involve the time and attention of those wholly occupied in the work of protecting the mercantile marine. I have been informed that the right hon. Member is labouring under a hallucination with regard to this, and that the correspondence which has passed between the various Departments of State on the subject, and between them and the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, and the evidence that that company could produce would enable the whole matter to be investigated without calling upon any naval officers and men engaged on patrol duty. It has been suggested that three members of your Lordships' House—Earl Loreburn, Lord Atkinson, and Lord Beresford—night well be placed on this Committee, and it would then fall upon them to recommend to the Admiralty what steps should be taken to ensure the safety of these vessels. I do not say that the Admiralty will be able to carry out their recommendations; they have many other important duties connected with the war to carry out; but, at any rate, if they do not do so, it would be public property that they were not able to protect the lives of those who are crossing between England and Ireland. Including those who travel by the North Wall boats, I think there are no less than 5,000 people who travel daily between Kingstown and Holyhead, and if it is impossible adequately to protect their lives surely at least women and children ought not to be allowed to travel by that route except with a special permit. The route between Larne and Stranraer is much easier to protect, because the sea voyage is much shorter.

There is only one other point to which I wish to refer, and that is the question whether it is proposed to make provision for the widows and orphans of the crew of the "Leinster" who perished. Many of us who very often go backwards and forwards to Ireland feel that this is really an individual question. We know nearly everybody on board those boats, from the gallant captain who so ably commanded the ship for many years—all through this war fully recognising the great danger which was incurred both by himself and the passengers—down to the steward and stewardesses, the luggage porters, and others whose Courtesy and attention we all so greatly appreciated. They have lost their lives in the service of the country as truly as if they had fallen on the battlefield. May they rest in peace. But it is the duty of the country, in these circumstances, to see that those who were dependent upon them do not suffer want as well as the bitter grief which they are called upon to bear.

To put myself in order and to enable me to reply if I wish to do so, I shall move that the correspondence which has passed be laid on the Table. I need hardly say that I shall not press for this if, as I anticipate, the Government find difficulty in acceding to the suggestion.

Moved, That the correspondence which has passed between the various Departments of Stale and between them and the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company on the subject of the safety of the Royal Mail ships between Holyhead and Kingstown be laid on the Table.—(Lord Oranmore and Browne.)


My Lords, I shall be very slow to intrude on your Lordships any observations of mine, but being one of those who have to cross and re-cross the Channel, and one who is fairly well acquainted, in consequence, with the difficulties and dangers that have beset the navigation of cross-Channel steamers since the war began, I should wish to say a very few words, and especially with regard to the second Question which the noble Lord has put on the Paper. As he has said, all of us who have crossed from time to time knew personally the officers of the "Leinster" who have now in the discharge of their duty ceased to be with us. We have all had personal and practical experience of the manner in which they discharged their duty, in circumstances which, I can testify, brought home to them a feeling almost of certainty that their lives would ultimately be claimed. I can say it of the captain who was in command of that ship. To my knowledge he believed that not only did he run a risk every time he crossed in control of his ship but he firmly believed that in the end the inevitable fate would overtake him which did overtake him. But notwithstanding that this feeling was shared by all the officers and by the humblest members of the crew, they went bravely day after day, night after night, doing their duty under circumstances which entitle them to the very careful consideration of the Government. The fighting men have to meet danger; it is their duty; but at any rate they sometimes have the chance of retaliating on a brutal enemy who may attack them. But those who in civilian service have to risk their lives as these men did—because it is clear that this was a particularly dangerous route—are certainly deserving of the consideration of the Government.

With regard to the general question, it is not very much use finding fault with those who control these matters once the mischief is done. But there is a very strong feeling in Ireland, that while the views which have been put forward in defence of the decision to afford no protection were undoubtedly quite honestly arrived at, they perhaps were somewhat erroneous. The layman, of course, cannot understand the difficulty, but this particular occurrence has claimed victims from the highest and the lowest. It is a subject of comment and intense feeling among all classes in Ireland, and they think that on reconsideration something might at least be done in the future.

In particular there is one matter which I think might undoubtedly be the subject of attention. It is a matter of common knowledge that the boat was attacked only some two or three days before. In a general sense it was known that there was danger. It does not require a war vessel to ascertain whether or not a sub- marine was probably in that particular locality. It may seem curious that put it in that way, but any one who knows the Channel will, I think, understand. The ship was torpedoed close to a sandbank. It was a matter of comment that that would be the natural point of attack by a submarine upon any mail-boat crossing; from Kingstown, and so unfortunately it has proved. Although you cannot ascertain the presence of a submarine with certainty, even a steam trawler in that locality at that time might possibly have been able to give some intimation ashore, and if the intimation had been given by wireless—there is a low power-station at Kingstown—intending passengers could have been warned. At the beginning of time war the practice was adopted of warning intending passengers that submarines were in the Channel, and then they went at their own risk. I speak subject to correction, but my impression is that no warning of this kind was given on this particular occasion, although submarines had undoubtedly been in the Channel some days before. It is really only to avoid anything of this kind occurring again that I have intervened, and if in the future that precaution is taken, something would perhaps be gained.


My Lords, the first Question put by the noble Lord relates to the Admiralty, and, in the unavoidable absence of the noble Earl who has in the past responded so well and so eloquently for that Department, I have been asked to reply. In the first place, may I express to your Lordships the very deep sympathy of His Majesty's Government and of the Board of Admiralty in particular with the sufferers in this disaster, and with their relatives? I think there is hardly a member of your Lordships' House who in all probability had not friends on that ship, and we feel very deeply the loss we have sustained.

The noble Lord who raised this matter referred to the replies that had been given in the other House. As already stated, the "Leinster" was not on this occasion provided with an escort, nor has the Admiralty any escort forces capable of conducting a vessel, whose speed by Lloyds is twenty-three and-a-half knots, in the weather and high seas prevailing that day. I would point out to my noble friend that it is not merely a question of what speed our destroyers are normally capable of attaining, but of what speed they can attain in rough weather. The noble Lord also alluded to the fact that at the time of the attack the faster escort craft were patrolling the mail route. On the distress signal being given those craft came to the assistance of the "Leinster," and one of the destroyers had her forebridge wrecked while trying to steam between nineteen and twenty knots.


May I ask the noble Lord what the distress signal was?


I have no information on that question, but I presume that it was the one usually sent in such circumstances. I am sorry that I have nothing further to state. I was prepared to reply only to the Questions on the Paper, but I will endeavour to go as far as I can into the other points raised by my noble friend in his speech. The fact that this destroyer had her forebridge wrecked while going between nineteen and twenty knots was quoted in the other House, as far as I understand, only to prove that this destroyer in particular, or for that matter, some other ships in His Majesty's Forces, was not capable of going at its full speed in a heavy sea such as was running on that occasion. The general view of the Admiralty is that in the case of such fast vessels as the "Leinster" the usual submarine precautions render them far safer proceeding independently of a patrolled route at a high speed, than would be the case when escorted by ships whose speed, except in calm waters, must inevitably reduce the speed of the ships escorted. This policy is carried out not only in the Irish Channel but in all waters surrounding the United Kingdom.

My noble friend alluded to the case of the "Justitia," which was quoted as showing that escort has not always ensured immunity. He mentioned several facts with regard to the "Justitia," but the only point on which I wish to lay stress in that regard is to show that if submarines attack in number—sas they may at any time—they certainly have a very great chance of getting through any escort which is provided for a ship. I should like to add that a large number of experienced naval officers are devoting their time and energies to the prevent ion of these disasters. I would assure your Lordships that all possible precautions have been and are being taken to protect these vessels against submarine attack, but it is not in the public interest to state the nature of these precautions.

Notwithstanding this deplorable calamity which we so deeply regret, I would remind your Lordships that the Irish Sea, and this service in particular, have been at least as immune as any of the services in the waters around the United Kingdom. The noble and learned lord, Lord Shandon, raised a point with regard to a certain sandbank, and stated that a previous attack having taken place near that sandbank therefore in his view another attack in the same neighbourhood might have been expected. He further said that no warning had been given to passengers. I regret that I have no information on those two points. The reply to the Questions asked by Lord Oranmore have been entrusted to me only as regards the Admiralty, but the noble Lord referred to the fact that these subjects of precaution affect not only the Admiralty but the Board of Trade and other Departments. I would like to assure both noble Lords that the points they have raised to-day will receive the fullest consideration of the Admiralty.

A suggestion was made that no women and children should be conveyed on these boats, and also that the Larne-Stranraer route should be followed. On these two points I would say that the public convenience has to be considered to a great extent, and the Admiralty have been concerned only in doing their best to protect the steamers on the routes that have been used. With regard to the Inquiry which the noble Lord suggested, as I understand the position it would be very undesirable in the public interest to have any further Inquiry; but I can assure him that all the points raised to-day shall have the most careful consideration of His Majesty's Government.

With regard to the second Question asked by Lord Oranmore, I am glad to be able to answer that entirely in the affirmative. The widows and children and other dependants of the officers and members of the crew of the "Leinster" who lost their lives when the vessel was torpedoed will, as a matter of course, be granted pensions and allowances in accordance with the War Risks Compensation Scheme for the Mercantile Marine. A description of the scheme is given in the print which I shall be glad to forward to my noble friend, and I will endeavour to supplement it by any further information he may desire.


My Lords, the noble Lord stated that there was no escort on this occasion because the weather was so rough, but my experience is that even in fine weather there is no escort. I cross over pretty often, and the only times I have seen an escort were in one case a dirigible balloon, and in the other case, in fine weather and on a dark night, a destroyer was dodging in front of the mail boat. In Ireland we complain that there has never been sufficient escort for these boats in rough or in fine weather. That is the point to which I should like to draw attention.

My noble friend asked another question—namely, whether the correspondence that has taken place between the Government, or the Admiralty, and the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company could possibly be laid on the Table. That question has not been answered. I do not know whether the noble Lord can answer it. Then he said that the Irish Channel was as immune us any other part of the sea. I do not know whether he noticed in the paper the other day that there was immense grief amongst the population of Holyhead in consequence of the loss of five vessels which had been sunk in the Irish Channel. That is a rather serious loss, in addition to many others we have heard of. I am very glad indeed to hear that compensation, or rather war risks compensation, is going to be given to the relatives of the men drowned. That is the most satisfactory part of the answer, but I really hope the public—because not only Irishmen but a great many Englishmen cross over on serious business between England and Ireland—will be re-assured as far as possible that proper escorts will be granted.


My Lords, the experience of the noble Earl and mine are rather different. Only twice on the pretty numerous occasions on which I have crossed between England and Ireland has the vessel had and escort, and one of those occasions was the only occasion on which the shi was fired at by a torpedo, and was missed by only a very few yards. Therefore I think the immunity given by an escort may not be as great as my noble friend imagines. I am sure that noble in this House would not desire that with the enormous demands made upon the Admiralty for the protection of the incoming American troops, and of other ships of a most important mercantile character, an undue number of destroyers Should be detached for the protection of the mail, which has enjoyed the most extraordinary immunity during the four years of the war.


My Lords, I do not, of course, desire to disagree with what my noble friend has just said. We all recognise that the Admiralty has claims made upon it all over the world which must be satisfied, and we must trust to their discretion in setting off one against the other. At the same time the answers given to-night, like those given last week in another place, do not, I think, realise the very great depth of feeling that exists in Ireland over this matter. We, of course, entirely accept, and would have expected nothing else from my noble friend, what he has said as to the sympathy which the Admiralty feel for the victims of this outrage.

It is very repellent, I am sure, to all of us to criticise the Navy in any way, because we realise the enormous task which is set them and we admire the way in which they carry it out. At the same time there is an impression—and no answer which has yet been given will remove that impression—that over this business someone has blundered, and we feel that we want a strong assurance that that blunder will not be repeated. There can only be one place in which the blunder has occured. It has not occurred through the officials of the company. Ever since January, 1915, the company have been appealing to and urging upon the Admiralty that while they have been responsible themselves for the running of the mail boats—it is not like the mail boats in the English Channel, where they are run under the orders of Naval officers themselves—their strongest opinion has been that they have not been sufficiently protected. Their view has not been accepted by the Admiralty, and therefore the responsibility is upon the Admiralty for what has occurred. As my noble friends have said, the anxiety of the company has been founded not merely upon nervousness or fear but upon experience. My noble friend spoke of an occasion when a torpedo was fired at the mail boat. I have been informed of four occasions when a torpedo was fired at the mail boat and missed it. Surely that was enough to warn somebody responsible that, whatever the steps were that were being taken, they were likely to prove insufficient some day; and some further steps could have been taken. My noble friend (Viscount Midleton) has had the unfortunate experience that while his ship was being escorted he was fired at. I am not going to join with him, or anybody else, in a controversy on a subject of naval tactics, but I should have thought that any layman might be allowed to argue that when a submarine knows that somebody is about ready to hit back very hard, it will be very much more careful in selecting its target. And, my Lords, we know that the escort system is in existence elsewhere. If it is correct elsewhere, why not in the Irish Channel?

We hear a great deal of the speed of the boats, but I have one or two friends at Folkestone and Boulogne who would be very angry indeed if it were suggested that their boats were slower than the Kingstown and Holyhead boats. Yet ever since the torpedoing of the "Sussex" in March, 1916—I think since that date I have crossed the Channel from Folkestone to Boulogne as many times as any one of your Lordships—I know of no case where the boat has not been escorted by destroyers. My comment upon the argument that the Holyhead boats are too fast to allow an escort in rough weather is that if it is too rough for an escort to go with them they ought not to be allowed to go at all. I was very glad to hear the noble Lord say towards the end of his remarks, and we know it will be so, that the authorities will keep this matter very keenly in their minds. I am sure they will. But I cannot sit down without saying that unless the protection given in the future is different from the protection which has been given in the past, public opinion in Dublin, which is very strong in this matter, will not be satisfied that they are being treated as fairly—and that is not an unfair word to use—in the matter as they deserve.


May I ask the noble Lord, before he replies, whether the mail boats have been escorted by aircraft, and whether these boats always take the same course in proceeding across the Irish Channel. There is one other point, and it is this. I do not think sufficient attention has been drawn to the firing of that second torpedo. The first torpedo, as I understand, practically destroyed the ship and ensured its being sunk. The second torpedo practically prevented the saving of life on a very large scale. The act of firing a torpedo at all at a mail steamer was a vile proceeding, but the Germans showed that they could sink to a greater depth of infamy by firing a second torpedo, which probably prevented the saving of a very large number of lives. If the commander of that submarine comes into our hands I think he should be tried for murder, because it was not a naval necessity but an act of deliberate murder. I hope his name will be discovered and placed on the list of those to whom we hope to have something to say when the war is over. It would not be vengeance but pure justice.


I will reply to the noble Lord who has just sat down, and who raised three points. The first was as to protection by aircraft. The second was with regard to whether the ships keep the same course. On those two points I would say, as I said before, that I have only gone into this question during the last two days, as I had no knowledge that I was going to reply till then. I will go into that matter and ascertain the facts. In regard to the question of the second torpedo, I will also put forward that view, in which I personally venture to concur. With regard to what fell from my noble friend opposite (Lord Donoughmore) I know of my own knowledge that the Admiralty realise very deeply their responsibility in this matter. I would like to make that perfectly clear to the noble Earl. The view put forward in your Lordships' House this evening shall be laid before them, and they will receive, I know, their continued attention and the utmost care.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.