HL Deb 18 December 1929 vol 75 cc1467-80

EARL STANHOPE had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether, in consequence of the reduction announced in the number of cruisers to be maintained, the Board of Admiralty has been relieved in any way of its responsibilities for defence; and
  2. 1468
  3. 2. Whether the cruisers so reduced will be found from those allotted to the Battle Fleets or from those guarding the trade routes;
and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I feel that I need make no excuses to your Lordships for bringing before the House the matters that I have placed upon the Paper. This House has always taken a very particular interest in all that concerns the Navy and the overseas trade which that Navy guards. So long ago as the beginning of the eighteenth century I find in the Journals of this House a rather curious entry to the effect that— a petition of several merchants on behalf of themselves and others, traders of the City of London, was presented to the House whereby they complained of great losses by the ill-timing of convoys and for want of cruizers; so that they durst no longer engage the remainder of their estates, to carry on their several trades unless immediate care was taken to remedy these two main causes of their misfortunes. The predecessors of your Lordships appointed a Committee to go into those matters, and in the end a long Address was presented to the reigning Sovereign. I will only read to your Lordships a passage from it:— May it please Your Majesty, it is a most undoubted maxim that the honour, security and wealth of the Kingdom does depend on the protection and encouragement of trade and the improving and right managing the Naval Strength. Coming to much more recent times, just eighteen years ago it was by the action of this House, and of this House alone, that the ratification of the Declaration of London was stopped—an Act on the part of this House which proved of great benefit not only to this country and to the Empire, but to our Allies and associates, in the Great War.

The Motion which I have placed on the Paper with regard to cruisers I move with no Party motives and with no hostile intent. I am purely out to seek information. I may say quite frankly that I am in favour of a reduction of armaments as great as is compatible with our security and our responsibilities, and I hope, as I believe all your Lordships hope, that the forthcoming Naval Conference may be able to arrive at an agreement satisfactory to all parties. But perhaps I may be allowed to utter one word of caution. Even if we obtain full agreement between the five major Naval Powers who have been invited to this Conference, we shall not obtain a satisfactory reduction of armaments unless we succeed in getting all other nations, even if they have only small navies, also to agree to limitation. Germany was not invited to the Washington Conference, and of course she is not in any way bound by the limitations which those Powers who attended the Conference agreed to for themselves. Therefore, quite legitimately, she has recently built a 10,000-ton ship of high speed, well armoured and carrying 11-inch guns. That ship is too fast to be caught by any battleship, and she is too powerful to be dealt with by any cruiser built under the limitations of the Washington Conference. The only type of ship which could deal with that German ship is, I believe, a battle cruiser. Therefore, your Lordships will realise that if we and other Powers have to maintain in the future battle-cruisers, it will be necessary for us to keep a larger number of capital ships than otherwise might be necessary.

I think I shall obtain general agreement with the statement that it is for the Government, and for the Government alone, to lay down policy, and I hope I shall obtain equal agreement when I say that a wise Government consults its experts as to the instruments which are necessary to carry out its policy; and that if it is unable or unwilling to provide those instruments, then a wise Government changes its policy. I am quite sure I shall obtain agreement from the noble and gallant Lord opposite, because he put that statement in an admirable phrase when he addressed your Lordships last week. He then said:— There is an old saying about strategy, and that is that strategy and policy go hand in hand. If strategy and policy do not go hand in hand, then the Government of the country where that mistake is made is bound to suffer. The history of this country, I think, shows the correctness of that statement. Unfortunately, the history of other countries shows that it is not only the Government which suffers, but the country itself.

What has been the policy of the Governments of this country in the past, at any rate since the signing of Peace at the conclusion of the Great War? The policy of successive Governments has been solely one of defence and of the preservation of peace. The reason is adequate and convincing. It is that no country stands to gain so little by war as this country, and no country runs the risk of losing so much. This policy, so far as the Admiralty is concerned, has been the defence of the coasts of the whole Empire, and the freedom of sea-passage to and from all its parts. The instruments which naval experts have consistently recommended to carry out this policy have included among other things a minimum of seventy cruisers. At the very last Board meeting which I attended we were considering a Memorandum on the policy of the Admiralty drawn up by the Naval Staff, and in it I well remember a phrase in which it was stated that seventy cruisers were required for the necessities of the Empire. That Memorandum was agreed to unanimously by the Board of Admiralty, and I think every one of us except, I believe, the Financial Secretary, was present at that meeting.

I am sorry that I have had to postpone this debate from last week, because my noble friend Lord Bridgeman would then have been able to be present, whereas to-day he is unfortunately unable to attend by reason of a previous engagement of a public character. He would have been able to tell your Lordships that those seventy cruisers included ships belonging to navies of the Dominions, and also ten ships over age. That was agreed to at the Conference at Geneva in 1927, and it has been the policy of the Government since that date. Four months later, that is, instead of May this year, in September, there appeared in the Press what seems to have been an authoritative statement. At any rate it was one which has not been denied. I will quote the gist of it from The Times of September 17, in which it was stated that the position which had been reached was that Great Britain would be perfectly content with fifteen 8-inch gun cruisers of roughly 10,000 tons, and thirty-five cruisers of approximately 6,500 tons each and carrying 6-inch guns—a total of fifty cruisers instead of seventy. The article added that in the view of the Government and of the Admiralty this would be a sufficient force to meet all our responsibilities.

I should like to ask whether this number of fifty is an inclusive figure, as was the seventy. Does it include the ships belonging to the navies of the Dominions, and does it also include those which we could retain although they had reached the age limit, and were indeed past it? If it is an inclusive figure it is obvious that the responsibilities for which fifty cruisers were considered sufficient in September must be less than the responsibilities of providing adequate security for British territory and the freedom of sea passage to and from all parts of the Empire, for which seventy cruisers were considered necessary in May. I submit that the country is entitled to be told what has been the change of policy. I hope that the noble and gallant Lord opposite will also be able to clear up the point as to what it is the fifty cruisers do and do not include. Your Lordships will, I think, agree that we ought to be clear on that point, and at any rate you will agree that if we sign our names to an agreement only to maintain fifty cruisers, that will be the total number which we can at any time maintain. There could be no question, if unfortunately a situation arose which might perhaps become strained, of our then delaying the breaking up of cruisers, or of hurrying forward the building of those which were already under construction. To do anything of that kind would obviously place us in the wrong, and might even lay us open to the accusation of being the aggressor State, and, in any case, is directly contrary to the method by which England in the past has fulfilled her engagements.

May I say a few words as to how this figure of seventy cruisers was arrived at. It was not based on the strength of any other navy, or of the navies of the world, but on our experiences in the Great War and the experiences which we learnt at manœuvres. There is no secret about the normal allocation in war-time of those cruisers. It was stated quite clearly by the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Jellicoe, speaking for New Zealand and, of course, also for the rest of the Empire, at the Naval Conference at Geneva in 1927. He said that twenty-five cruisers would normally be operating with the Battle Fleet and forty-five would be allocated to the trade routes, of which at any given time twelve probably would be away refitting and refuelling.

I speak with great diffidence as a landsman, and particularly so in the presence of my noble and gallant friend on the cross-Benches [Earl Beatty], but I believe I am correct in saying that the greatest danger which the battleship has to meet is a determined attack by a flotilla of enemy destroyers. It is a far greater danger than an attack by submarines, and it is an infinitely greater danger than an attack by aeroplanes. A submarine can only operate in daylight, and the answer to the submarine is very largely the scouting aeroplane and other methods which we have found suitable and satisfactory. As regards the aeroplane, that, of course, is unable to operate in the dark, and in any case it only drops one bomb or one torpedo against the very large number which are discharged by destroyers. Those of your Lordships who have seen an attack delivered by destroyers will realise how great the danger is. The answer to that danger is, and must be, cruisers; and therefore I am very doubtful whether you will find any naval officer who will agree that any great reduction can be made in the number of the cruisers allocated to the Battle Fleet.

Similarly in regard to trade protection. A commerce-raider may be a converted merchantman. There is no difficulty whatever in knocking out a converted merchantman. Any cruiser carrying a 6-inch gun is more than a match for any merchantman, however well it may be fought, and that for many reasons. The cruiser has ammunition hoists and armour, and—more important than that—it has suitable range finders, and, still more, instruments for gunnery control. The difficulty, of course, is to be able to find the commerce-raider at all. It took twenty-three ships to catch the Emden, and your Lordships will realise how difficult the task of a cruiser guarding the trade routes is when I say that the thirty-three cruisers which were all that could be allocated out of the seventy then built, gives them an average of 2,500 miles of trade routes to guard; in other words, there would only be three cruisers between here and the Cape. Your Lordships will realise that if there is to be a reduction of twenty cruisers from the seventy, that will either mean reducing the thirty-three cruisers on the trade routes to thirteen only, or practically taking away all cruisers allo- cated to the Battle Fleet. I think your Lordships will agree that the country should be told what is the policy of the Government in this matter, and that we should be able to understand what it means. To me it seems obvious that there has been some change of policy, and if that is the case then I hope the Government will agree to produce a White Paper, so that the country may be able to understand clearly what is this change of policy, and what are the implications which it involves. I beg to move.


My Lords, the question which has been raised by the noble Earl is in no sense a political question or a Party question, but it is an Imperial question, and therefore I feel that, having spent something more than seven and a half years as the principal naval adviser of four successive Governments, I am justified in rising and addressing your Lordships' House in support of the noble Earl. The Question on the Paper is one of what is the responsibility of the Admiralty. The responsibility of the Admiralty is to provide the naval strength adequate to carry out the policy of the Government. But, above that, it lies with the Admiralty to provide a sufficient strength to protect the sea communications and the trade routes, and to protect the Dominions and the Colonies from oversea attack. That is a responsibility which has been laid upon the Admiralty by successive Governments for very many years. It is a responsibility not only to His Majesty's Government but to the Empire, and it is for that reason that we require to know, and what we are concerned with is, that nothing has been done, that nothing is being done, and that nothing will be done at the forthcoming Conference which will in any way weaken the hands of the Admiralty in carrying this very heavy burden.

The Conference, we understand, will concern itself chiefly with the cruiser question. As was pointed out by the noble Earl, that is, a question which is very vital, because it is with cruisers that the defence of our trade and sea communications is primarily concerned. If we consider the enormous length of our communications and the immense volume of trade which is spread over it we will recognise that it is impossible to meet our requirements in that direction without an adequate provision of cruisers. The length of those lines of communication, where most of the British ships are found, is no less than 80,000 miles, and on a typical day in the year 9,500,000 tons of British ships, exceeding 3,000 tons of individual tonnage, will be found on those lines. Nine and a half million tons over 80,000 miles!

I will not trouble your Lordships with analyses of those statements or by quoting a large number of figures; but the main figures will impress your Lordships with the tremendous responsibility resting on the Admiralty to find adequate protection over such a vast area. As has been pointed out by the noble Earl, the number of cruisers hitherto required for the protection of our trade and for other purposes has been seventy. This requirement of seventy cruisers has actually been in being for the past ten years.; that is to say, practically since the signing of the Peace. The noble. Earl has informed us that this figure was confirmed no later than last May. Again, it is as well to analyse what the duties of those cruisers are. As was pointed out by the noble Earl, they have two duties to perform. First, they have to form a tactical part of the Battle Fleet. Secondly, they are required for the protection of the trade routes and sea communications. As regards the first, the number required is based upon the size of the Battle Fleet. The Battle Fleet is the covering force for all naval endeavour in the defence of the Empire. The Battle Fleet is the massing of battleships, the number of which was settled by the Washington Agreement. As stated by the noble Earl, the smallest number of cruisers required to work with the battleships, the number of which was assessed at Washington and cannot be altered, is twenty-five. You cannot get away from that figure in any circumstances whatsoever. That twenty-five must remain so long as the Battle Fleet consists of the number of battleships which was assessed at the Washington Conference. This, as the noble Earl has pointed out, leaves but forty-five. Taking away twelve refitting and refuelling, as pointed out also by the noble Earl, you are left with thirty-three to protect 80,000 miles of sea communications and trade routes.

I turn to the statement which has been quoted, in which it is said that we are approaching the Conference on a basis of 50 cruisers composed of fifteen 8-inch ships and thirty-five 6-inch ships, the latter being approximately of 6,500 tons. If you analyse that statement it will be found that not only is this an enormous decrease on our proposed cruiser strength, but we are to go to a Conference on a total cruiser tonnage of 339,000, which includes fifteen 8-inch ships with a total displacement of 146,800 tons. That means that the remaining thirty-five ships cannot be of the new 6,500 ton type. That is a very important point because it means that when the time comes to replace the large number of small cruisers (that is, the small wartime cruisers) the tonnage figure of 339,000 tons will be insufficient to maintain even fifty cruisers. We are, therefore, approaching this Conference with figures which represent a dangerous minimum. We have to-day fifty-nine cruisers built and building, and this does not include the two cruisers of the 1928 programme which have been suspended, or the ships of the 1929 programme which the Prime Minister informed the House of Commons was also suspended. Of this number, fifty-nine, thirty-five will fall out from age during the next ten years. To maintain the number at fifty we must lay down, therefore, during the next few years 26 cruisers. A steady building programme is essential for this purpose. Yet the 1928 programme is suspended and, so far as is known, nothing has been done as regards the 1929 programme.

This cruiser situation is indeed serious. We have dropped our numbers from seventy to fifty. We are entering the Conference with an extremely low limit of cruiser tonnage. At the same time, there is at present no indication that a proper provision is being made even for the reduced figures and tonnage which have been put down. The noble Earl referred to what happened in the War. It is not so long ago that we can afford to lose sight of its lessons, and if we look them up we shall see that in the period from August 4,1914, until November 9,1914, the "Emden," which was being pursued by eighteen ships, captured twenty-nine ships with a total tonnage of 119,690; and that the "Karlsruhe" captured between August 4,1914, and November 4,1914, nineteen ships with a total tonnage of 83,701. There is an example of what two small cruisers can do in the face of the very large preponderating force of cruisers that we had out looking for them. In the case of the "Emden," no less than twenty-three ships were looking for her and so far as the "Karlsruhe" is concerned, forty-one ships were definitely warned and went out of their way to look for her. Is it surprising that there should be apprehension among those who have given thought and consideration to this vital question, that there should be dismay amongst those who cannot understand how parity in cruisers can be arrived at unless it is to be a parity having regard to the commitments and obligations of our nation? I think it can be agreed that there is no nation whose naval commitments and obligations are so great and complicated as those of the British Empire. It is inconceivable that there should be anybody who would be opposed to arriving at agreement with the United States, or any other nation, but surely it is equally inconceivable to think that anybody would lose sight of the fact that this Empire of ours is one which is bound by the sea, whose communications between the parts of the Empire are the sea, and it is on the protection of the sea that they depend.


My Lords, we are accustomed to a certain elasticity in our debates on any given topic in this House, and it has always seemed to mo to be an excellent custom that that elasticity should prevail, but I must confess that I have seldom listened to two speeches in this House which have strayed further from the two points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, in his Motion. The noble Earl began his remarks by expressing his fervent hope that a reduction of armaments would be effective, and of the general desirability of reaching understandings all round with other Naval Powers. His mind, however, appeared to be clouded at the same time with a certain amount of doubt, misgiving, and suspicion. Nearly every word that fell from him after the expression of that hope was such as to make one think that we, as a nation, should do everything in our power at the approaching Conference to make a reduction of armaments as difficult as possible.

He quoted me as having talked about the relationship that should exist between policy and strategy. I do not vary that statement one iota; but I submit that what he did give us himself was a sort of lecture on naval strategy, and what he was asking from the Government was not an exposition of their policy in regard to the defence of the Empire but an exposition of their naval strategy. He even went so far as to quote, almost textually, the opinions expressed at a meeting of the Board of Admiralty in support of a certain figure of seventy cruisers which, at the time that Board met, was considered, according to the opinion quoted by the noble Earl, as the absolute minimum number of cruisers requisite for the defence of the British Empire; and he appears to assume that no matter what happens, what our relations may be with foreign countries, what arrangements we may enter into, that seventy is graven in tablets of stone, and is to stand like the laws of the Medes and Persians for ever and for ever. I may remind the noble Earl that the opinions of naval experts have often been abated, that some of the most eminent naval experts have recognised that there is a gap between theory and practice, that they have recognised that though from a naval point of view it might be absolutely ideal to have 120 cruisers, still, like sensible men, they also recognise that their coat must be cut according to their cloth, and that, above all, our relations with foreign countries may justify a diminution of the figure.

As regards the Questions that were put to me by the noble Earl, I can assure him of this, that the policy of His Majesty's Government, so far as the security of the Empire is concerned, has not been altered in one single point. The policy of His Majesty's Government is, in other words, to provide for the absolute security of the British Empire in all its aspects. If, as he seems to assume, there is any suspicion in the minds of some people that His Majesty's present Government have acted without consulting the Board of Admiralty, he is entirely mistaken. Throughout the life of the present Government the Board of Admiralty has been consulted as much as it ever could have been consulted before. There has been no omission of what is the obvious duty of a Government in that respect.

As everyone knows, the object of the approaching Conference is a reduction of armaments. The delegates to this Conference from Great Britain are not, as they sometimes have been, naval experts. They are to be accompanied, however, by naval advisers. This change in the character of our delegation is, if I may express my own opinion with the utmost diffidence, an admirable change, a change for the better. It has always seemed to me that to put a technical expert in the position of a delegate to such a Conference is to put him in a false position. These questions can better be approached from the angle of statesmanship, because, in point of fact, what we are putting first is policy, and it is quite obvious that this Conference will be entirely abortive and ineffective unless we can reach some understanding with the Naval Powers of the World which will achieve the object of all such Conferences, a reduction of armaments.

As regards the responsibilities of the Admiralty, to which the noble Earl himself, and the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Beatty, have referred, I can only say that if that Conference takes the course which every believer in world peace and every progressive person must fervently hope it will, His Majesty's Government feel absolutely confident that the Admiralty will be abe to continue adequately to discharge their responsibilities to the Government of the country for naval defence. That, I hope, meets the first part of the noble Earl's Question. I really cannot follow him into the details of naval strategy.

The second part of his Question asks for information and details about facts and figures which are the subject of negotiation at the coming Conference. Quite obviously, it is impossible for me to give him the information that he seeks. I can only say that any observations coming from the noble Earl on this subject, both on personal grounds and in view of the fact that he occupied a very distinguished position at the Admiralty in the last Administration, will be noted very carefully by His Majesty's Government, but it is impossible for me in present circumstances even to deal with the facts and figures that he has mentioned and about which he requires further information. I believe that in that figure of fifty, two Australian cruisers are included, but that is about the only further information I can give to the noble Earl. I hope that in these circumstances he will not press for Papers. I have no Papers to give him except absolutely secret papers which are the subject of negotiation, or rather will be at the approaching Conference. It is, therefore, with the hope that the noble Earl will not press his Motion for Papers that I repeat my assurance that his remarks will be carefully noted by the Government.


My Lords, you will have observed that my Question was in two parts. The noble Lord did not deal with the first part in any sort or kind of way except to say that there was no change of policy in regard to defence between the last Government and this Government. He then went on to say that the Conference about to be held was to be on questions of change of policy. How he reconciles those two statements I am unable to understand, and I doubt whether the House will understand either. As regards the second part, there I ask where the reduction of cruisers was to take place, whether in those allocated to the Battle Fleet or to the trade routes. There was no secret about that when the matter was discussed quite openly in 1927, and why a Government which professes to disagree with secret diplomacy should endeavour to hide every atom of information not only from your Lordships but also from the country as a whole, I fail to understand.

I think, perhaps, I do understand the reason, which is that they are not prepared to say either that the cruisers allocated to the Battle Fleet are insufficient or that those allocated to the trade routes are insufficient. It is obvious that if you make a reduction of twenty from one or the other, or both, the numbers are going to be insufficient and everybody will realise it. I do not want to press for Papers because, as the noble Lord says, apparently these are of a secret nature. Therefore I do not propose to proceed with my Motion further, but I do trust that before the Government go into the Conference they will take their own countrymen into their confidence because only so will they arrive at an agreement which will stand and, above all, arrive at a situation in which confidence and trust replaces suspicion and possibly a feeling of un-settlement which is the very worst foundation on which the peace of the world can rest.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.