HL Deb 17 October 1939 vol 114 cc1422-6

My Lords, I beg leave to ask His Majesty's Government a question of which I have given private notice—namely, whether they can make any statement on the sinking of His Majesty's Ship "Royal Oak" and the air raids upon Scotland and the North East coast.


My Lords, the answer to the question put by the noble Lord opposite is as follows: The battleship "Royal Oak" was sunk at anchor by a U-boat in Scapa Flow at 1.30 a.m. on the 14th instant. It is still a matter of conjecture how the U-boat penetrated the defences of the harbour. When we consider that during the whole course of the last war this anchorage was found to be immune from such attacks, on account of the obstacles imposed by the currents and the net barrages, this entry by a U-boat must be considered as a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring. A Board of Inquiry is now sitting at Scapa Flow to report upon all that occurred, and anything that I say must be subject to revision in the light of their conclusions. It appears probable that the U-boat fired a salvo of torpedoes at the "Royal Oak," of which only one hit the bow. This muffled explosion was at the time attributed to internal causes, and what is called the inflammable store where the kerosene and other such materials are kept was flooded. Twenty minutes later the U-boat fired three or four torpedoes and these striking in quick succession caused the ship to capsize and sink. She was lying at the extreme end of the harbour and therefore many officers and men were drowned before rescue could be organised from other vessels.

The lists of survivors have already been made public and I deeply regret to inform the House that upwards of 800 officers and men have lost their lives. The Admiralty immediately announced the loss of this fine ship. Serious as this loss is it does not affect the margin of security in heavy vessels which remains ample. Meanwhile an intensive search of the anchorage has not yet yielded any results. It is clear however that after a certain time the harbour can be pronounced clear as any U-boat would have to rise to the surface for air or perish. All necessary measures are being taken to increase the precautions which in the late war proved effectual. For the rest the report of the Board which is now examining the event in full technical detail must be awaited.

With regard to the second part of the noble Lord's question as to the air raid yesterday, I have the honour to inform your Lordships that a series of air raids took place on the Firth of Forth yesterday afternoon. In the light of the information now available it would appear that the air raid was carried out by twelve or possibly more aircraft in waves of two or three at a time. Two civilians were slightly injured by shell fragments: damage to civilian property was negligible. Naval casualties were caused on H.M.S. "Southampton," H.M.S. "Edinburgh," and the Destroyer "Mohawk." I deeply regret to say that altogether three officers and thirteen ratings were killed or died of wounds; that two officers were slightly injured; that eleven ratings were seriously injured and thirty-one slightly injured. The damage to H.M.S. "Southampton" and H.M.S. "Edinburgh" was slight and both vessels are ready for sea. The damage to H.M.S. "Mohawk" is superficial. The enemy were at once engaged by our fighter squadrons and by anti-aircraft fire. Four enemy bombers were brought down, of which one was shot down by anti-aircraft gun fire. In addition a number of other enemy aircraft were heavily engaged and some of these may not have been able to reach home.

As the attack was local and appeared to be developing only on a small scale, and as our defences were fully ready, it was not considered appropriate in this particular instance to issue an air raid warning which would have caused dislocation and inconvenience over a wide area. The responsibility for issuing air raid warnings must be left to the competent authorities, but the circumstances in which warnings should be issued will be carefully reviewed in the light of the experience gained.

I may also inform your Lordships that at 10.30 a.m. to-day an air raid took place on Scapa Flow. The attack was made by about four machines. Two bombs fell very near His Majesty's Ship "Iron Duke" and the ship sustained certain damage. No casualties occurred. His Majesty's Ship "Iron Duke" is an old battleship which, it will be recollected, was demilitarised under the London Naval Treaty of 1930, and had all her armour removed. She has since been used for depot and training ship purposes. One aircraft was shot down in flames by the fire of either ship or shore guns, and another was probably damaged.


My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord for the answer he has given, and on behalf of my noble friend and myself would like to express our regret at the loss of life in both episodes. With regard to the submarine entering Scapa Flow, the noble and gallant Lord and I both know that anchorage very well, and it will be very interesting to learn how that could have happened, because in addition to the natural obstacles to which the noble and gallant Lord referred, I presume there were artificial aids, as we had in the last war, to prevent this sort of thing from happening. But that is subject matter for the inquiry, and I do not wish to make any remarks which might give information away.

With regard to the raid by aeroplanes on the Firth of Forth, and the explanation given as to why the air raid warning was not sounded, might I ask the Government this? Would it not be possible to organise air raid warnings locally or geographically? Everyone agrees now that if there is an air raid in Scotland it is absurd that the whole of England should be sent to cover and all work and activity brought to a standstill. That is ridiculous; but we had something of that kind at the beginning of the present war. It surely is necessary to have some localised system of warning so that, for example, if there is a possibility of bombs being dropped on a city, that particular area may have its warning. The noble Lord spoke of a wide area, but surely you could have a warning in the county in which Edinburgh is situated, because obviously if machines are hard pressed they may drop their bombs for lightness' sake and, if they preferably can do it over a city, they no doubt will. The fact that there is an old castle at Edinburgh would give them quite enough excuse to try it. I throw that suggestion out, and no doubt it is being considered. I know this matter has been discussed, and the view I have given is quite widely held among students of the subject.


May I ask the noble and gallant Lord, before he replies, whether he can inform your Lordships that there is ground for believing that the U-boat which succeeded in striking the "Royal Oak" was sunk afterwards and did not escape?


My Lords, may I answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Gainford first? We have no reason at the present time to know that the U-boat which sank the "Royal Oak" has been destroyed. I think we will all agree that the points put by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Strabolgi) are very appropriate. At this moment we are watching a new form of warfare, which does not always follow the anticipated course, but, as I have said, we are going to profit by our experience, and the points that the noble Lord has raised will be those to which we shall devote our attention.


May I ask one more question about air raids? I understand that this morning, when the legal members of your Lordships' House were in session, an air-raid warning was given. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, knows about it, but I believe the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, does. I understand that the Court adjourned, or did not adjourn, as the case may be. Is anything known about that? It seems to me to be serious if noble and learned Lords have to suspend their sitting because there is a raid on the North-East coast. I believe there was an air-raid warning at Chatham, and that is getting near. But it would be unfortunate if noble and learned Lords had unnecessarily to adjourn their legal sitting because there happened to be a raid warning at some distant place.


My Lords, I am not so sure that the noble and gallant Lord has quite answered Lord Gainford's question. As far as I understood, his question was whether the U-boat which had entered Scapa Flow was sunk or not. I do not think the noble and gallant Lord answered that question.


My answer was that as far as we know the U-boat that sunk the "Royal Oak" is still afloat.


Is anything known about the air-raid warning given in your Lordships' House?


I am afraid I have no information on that question. I can make inquiries and give the noble Lord the information later. I was not aware, until he had spoken, that there had been a warning.


My Lords, may I say it was not a formal warning? There was some misapprehension owing to the fact that a message was received here that an air raid was likely or imminent. There were, according to the newspapers, some aircraft over the North Sea and, I think, some aircraft approaching other ports on the coast. No sirens went, but when we received the information that an air raid was, or might be, imminent, by some misapprehension it was so conveyed to us that we thought it was a siren warning. We cannot always hear the sirens in this building, and those of your Lordships, including myself, who were engaged in legal business, repaired discreetly to the basement; but we did not stop there very long.

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