HL Deb 15 July 1935 vol 98 cc380-7

LORD STRICKLAND had the following Notice on the Paper:—To ask whether His Majesty's Government will take steps to bring up to date at the expense of the Government of Malta the estimates and plans and reports on financial and engineering proposals for the construction of a central station for flying boats at Malta in view of the proved advantages offered by the geographical position of the Island and the natural opportunities offered by its harbours; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion as it stands on the Notice Paper asks for very little. It asks that His Majesty's Government should take steps to bring up to date plans and estimates already prepared with the very best technical advice from naval authorities for establishing a first-class flying-boat base at the south-east bay of Malta. As your Lordships will remember, the whole administration of Malta now rests directly on the responsibility of the Colonial Department, which is responsible to the Imperial Parliament. I therefore trust that some indulgence will be extended to the discussion in detail in the Imperial Parliament of questions which would be within the province of other parts of His Majesty's Dominions if representative government were to continue therein.

Thanks are due to the present Secretary of State for Air for his courtesy in being ready to take with him to his new Department his great interest in Malta and its progress. Although it is clear that, for the present, he is unable to hold out prospects of being able to deal definitely with the main question, I trust that the Department will be able to deal with so small a feature as bringing up to date plans and estimates. It will not cost more than a couple of hundred pounds. Thanks are also due to his predecessor as Secretary of State for Air, who has on former occasions, when this question has been before your Lordships' House, dealt with it with the greatest courtesy and sympathy, and has pointed out the difficulties that have to be overcome. Those difficulties relate principally to finance, which constitutes a difficulty that has to be met on all questions in every direction. Nevertheless, His Majesty's Government should be prepared for future action. Circumstances may arise with reference to the necessity for this particular enclosure of the bay similar to those which arose in connection with the main harbour of Valetta itself. Plans were prepared and matured, and a time came when Lord Fisher, as Commander-in-Chief in Malta, suddenly saw that the time had come to put those plans into effect, and it was of material importance that those plans should be ready. I ask that a similar policy should be followed now on this occasion.

The urge to bring forward this question for a third time before your Lordships' House does not arise from any conditions in Abyssinia, or the Haifa pipe-line, or the Suez Canal. It comes from the fact that, upon the recent revolution in Greece, the great seaplanes of the main routes had to leave their usual route over a country troubled by civil commotion and go where nature dictated and indicated. They came to Malta. They came to this bay. That shows the foresight and the wisdom of the late Secretary for Air, Lord Thomson, who in this House announced his opinion that Malta was destined to become the "Clapham Junction of the Air." But there are considerations even more potent and more weighty. They are the adaptibility of Malta as a base for flying boats and the necessity of using Malta for such a base. At present the harbours of Malta are so overcrowded and congested that naval shipping has been driven to occupy the anchorages and water rights which by most solemn agreement have been reserved for mercantile purposes. We are by stress of circumstances being deprived not only of our Constitution in Malta but also of our water rights. I hope the Government will feel that some restitution is necessary, and the restitution which I suggest is that more attention should be given, and quick attention, to the adaptability of the south-east bay of Malta as a great flying-boat base.

The population of Malta is increasing at the rate of 3,000 a year. We are already 2,000 to the square mile. We are entitled to trade, and no doubt it is the duty of everybody concerned with the Administration to look out for openings for the extension of the tourist traffic. Yet there is in Malta—and it is really a reproach to the Administration—no single deep-water wharf where a big tourist ship can come alongside. It is really surprising that, while everywhere else in the world every effort is made to meet the needs of this great traffic, in Malta nothing whatever is being done, and very little can be expected under the present Administration. In my opinion it possible to solve the question of water rights in such a way as to solve several other problems too. There is a wharf known as the Hay Wharf, with deep water, and very suitable for the tourist traffic. It was the Hay Wharf which was used for fodder brought to Malta for the mules at a time when motor traffic was unknown. Why should that wharf remain idle merely because it is under military control?

Another aspect of this question is that the Maltese have a right to be defended in their convenanted connection with the Empire, whatever may be the opinion of passing authorities as to whether Malta is defensible from the air or not. Any official dallying with the view that Malta cannot be defended against attacks from the air cannot sound to the loyal Maltese otherwise than as disloyal and cowardly. I know it is repeatedly stated that Malta, as well as London, cannot be defended from the air. We heard similar talk when the submarine menace first made itself felt; but remedies were found. I assert that Malta can be defended from the air more easily than London can be defended. We all know that the one defence against air attack is counter attack. If Malta is made as effective as possible for counter attack we shall not be attacked, because the danger of reprisals will be a great deal too great.

There are special opportunities in the Island for providing underground hangars. There is a vast mass of soft sandstone with outstanding cliffs where at very small expense underground hangars could be constructed for a certain number of small aircraft, which would be absolutely immune from bombing and yet would have facilities for exit in every direction. Moreover, for the purposes of bombproof hangars, Malta is especially fortunate in having many large disused quarries and ditches of old fortifications that could be cheaply covered. The mere presence of a certain strength of aircraft that cannot be attacked would in itself constitute a valuable means of defence. Then, the flying boat has many advantages in comparison with land armaments. Flying boats can in time of war be dispersed and concentrated in unexpected localities. They can refuel from submarines where least expected, whereas the location of aerodromes for land planes is known, and they can be broken up to an extent that requires time to rehabilitate them.

Every time this question has been before this House we have been asked what Malta is going to contribute. There are several ways in which Malta contributes. The illegal acquisition of Malta's water rights is one contribution. The fact that Malta is entitled to be defended should also be regarded as a consideration of importance. Let it be remembered that Malta is not a conquered country. Malta had the great blessing of becoming part of this Empire because the Maltese were with the English, Portuguese, Neapolitans and other allied co-belligerents that obtained Malta by right of the sword from the French. Napoleon had previously acquired the sovereignty by right of conquest from the sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the King of Naples had lost his rights as overlord to any reversion because the conquest of the Maltese was not from the Knights of St. John but from the French.

If the Government and the Air Force authorities are not in a position to deal, to-day, with this necessity of making use of what Providence has put before England, the natural makings of the best flying-boat station in the world, and if they say that at present for financial or other reasons, the main problem is not to be tackled, I hope we shall hear that at all events a little money will be spent to bring these plans up to date when there is a quarter of a million in the Maltese chest. If only £200 or £300 were devoted to this purpose it would at all events show that something is being done. I beg to move.


My Lords, this is by no means the first occasion on which the noble Lord has pressed upon this House the strong views which he holds upon the subject of which he has just spoken. The present is, indeed, the fourth time—not the third, as he stated—this Question has been, raised by him within the last six years. I would offer my respectful tribute to the tenacity with which he pursues this matter, to the strong sense of local patriotism on which his interest in it is based, and to his obvious and justifiable pride in the past history of Malta and its present importance in the scheme of maritime and air communications. It is perfectly true that the specific point which the noble Lord raises in his Motion is a comparatively small one, but a large part of his speech was concerned with the merits of his actual proposal, and I shall find it difficult, I am afraid, in the course of my reply to divorce the one from the other.

As regards the particular proposals which he has urged upon your Lordships, the reply of His Majesty's Government must, I fear, be that they can see no ground for departing from the substance of the answers which were given to him when he has raised this Question on previous occasions. This, however, is not to be taken as implying in any degree that His Majesty's Government are failing in their recognition of the importance of Malta As a British possession and as a link in the chain of Imperial defence. On the contrary, they do not in any way abate their determination to preserve the Island in the important position which it now holds. But, having regard to the technical advice before them and their financial commitments for defence in other directions, they are frankly not prepared to proceed with the scheme suggested by the noble Lord. It is quite clear that Malta on her own resources would be unable to finance the scheme, and as, at the present moment, His Majesty's Government cannot see their way to provide any contribution towards it, no profitable purpose would be served by the preparation of plans or undertaking the other inquiries proposed by the terms of the noble Lord's motion.

The noble Lord said a good deal about the importance of Malta as a key base for flying boats, and he was apparently, as I understood, thinking in that connection both of military and of civil possibilities. Now, as regards the use of flying boats for military purposes at Malta, I am advised that there is no prospect of the number of flying boats which are at present stationed at Malta being increased in any foreseeable future, and if it is a question of taking further measures to provide aircraft for defence of Malta. against air attack, priority will probably be given to increasing the facilities at Malta for the operation of land-based aeroplanes.

The noble Lord has in mind the larger size of flying boats and the possibility of concentrating and refuelling them at sea. There are, perhaps, interesting possibilities in that direction, but the technical advisers of the Secretary of State for Air could not, I understand, for one moment agree that the advantage would lie with flying boats, as compared with land-based aircraft, for the defence of Malta against air attack. The larger size, for example, of the flying boat is not, I believe, an unmixed advantage, and, generally speaking, the view of the Air Ministry is that Service requirements for the operation of flying boats are fairly satisfactorily met with the facilities at present available, and that it would certainly not be justifiable on defence grounds to undertake the expenditure of the £22,500,000 which would be involved in the noble Lord's proposals.

From the point of view of civil aviation again, it seems more likely, according to present intentions, that the development of Malta will be in connection with its use by landplane services rather than by a service operated with flying boats. The noble Lord has very properly reminded us—or at all events, whether he did or not, it is the case—that during some recent brief disturbances in Greece, when Athens had to be closed to foreign aircraft, the flying boats of Imperial Airways were diverted to Malta, and I agree that it is not to be denied that similar contingencies might arise again. But for regular operation of any Imperial air services passing through Malta it is probable that the landplane will be preferred, and that Malta will take its place in the chain of air communications rather as a station for land aeroplanes than as a base for the operation of flying boats. This aspect of the matter, as I am informed, has received a good deal of attention in the Air Ministry in recent months in connection with the Empire air mail scheme which it is hoped to introduce in 1937. I am sorry not to be able to give a more favourable reply to the noble Lord, but he will, I hope, take some comfort to himself in the prospect of the island becoming a centre for landplane traffic in connection with the Empire air mail scheme.


My Lords, the most striking feature of the reply on behalf of the Government is that it contained no word of comfort in reference to the rights of the Maltese to be defended in case of war—defended as an integral part of the Empire, apart from the difficulties connected with that defence. As to technical opinion, well, technical opinion can be had for the choosing. I know of the best technical opinion which is most strongly in favour of carrying out the construction of these two breakwaters, and I know how to find opinion to the contrary. I know also where it comes from in the contrary direction as regards Malta, and I hope there will soon be a change with regard to that.

We hold Malta, first of all, for war purposes. Everything must be subordinated and co-ordinated to that main interest. I ask, What is the good of having Singapore as a base, so far advanced and costing so much money, if every link in the chain to bring reinforcements to Singapore is not brought up to its maximum efficiency? Are our land planes to be any use in time of war to Singapore, Haifa, or the Suez Canal? You need not be an expert to say that will not be the case. To squeeze down the reply of the noble Earl to its lowest terms, it means this: "We do not want to spend money on seaplanes for the present." "For the present"—that is the one consoling phrase I have heard from those in authority on this subject. What happened with reference to dirigible airships? Perhaps it was not the third attempt—it might have been the fourth—when I brought up this Question and urged that dirigible airships were useless, dangerous, and a, waste of money. The official reply was that money was to be spent on them, and not on flying boats. The consequence was that the Secretary of State for Air lost his life, and the flying-boat is now coming daily and daily more into its own.

Why should there be this refusal to bring these plans up to date? If we had not had plans for the Valetta breakwater, the shipping there during the War would have been at the mercy of enemy submarines, and the resources of Malta would not have been one-fourth of what they were. These plans were laid at my private expense. The whole thing was ridiculed for years, and no encouragement whatever was given for years, but at last it was done. Lord Charles Beresford said that the Mediterranean was to be abandoned in case of war, and that a great base was to be made at Gibraltar and another at Suez. That was one expert, Lord Charles Beresford. Then another expert, Lord Fisher, carried out the plan and the breakwater was built just in time. At all events, the existence of the plan was helpful. Now apparently no help is wanted. We are deprived of our Constitution, we are deprived of our water rights; we cannot even speak in Malta but have to come here to submit our case, and we get very little consolation. The Navy has occupied our wharves and taken possession of our water rights. They have done it illegally, but they cannot help it. They are there temporarily, but they cannot go away. What is wanted is a Round-Table Conference to consider all these questions as a whole, and to allow a certain selection of experts by those who have the interests of Malta at heart. I hope your Lordships will allow me to bring up this question again next year for the fifth time.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.