HL Deb 08 March 1949 vol 161 cc211-7

LORD AILWYN rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any comments to make on the circumstances surrounding the handing back of the battleship "Royal Sovereign" by the Soviet authorities to the Royal Navy. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the Question that stands in my name on the Order Paper, the story can be unfolded in a few words. In the for mulation of my Question and in the presentation of the facts which I believe to be accurate, I must ask your Lordships' indulgence if I mince no words. The time has passed, it seems to me, for being mealy-mouthed in matters affecting the dignity of this country. If I do not pull my punches, it is because I can no longer witness without protest the spectacle of other nations rocking on their heels at our discomfiture. I am asking His Majesty's Government whether they have any comments to make on the strange happenings at Rosyth early in February. Your Lordships will recall that the battleship "Royal Sovereign," together with certain other naval vessels, was loaned by this country to the Soviet Union in 1944. The "Royal Sovereign" was due to be handed back to the Royal Navy during a five-day period, January 19 to 24. All arrangements were made for her reception off May Island at the entrance to the Firth of Forth on whichever of these five days she reached the rendezvous.

The subsequent history is as follows. The five days go by, and she fails to put in an appearance. So far as I am aware, there was a complete absence of explanations, apologies or regrets. Fresh arrangements are made and, after what one can only assume must have been a maximum of inconvenience to our own naval authorities, in due course she arrives on February 4. The Russians steam her up to Rosyth. She fails to fire any salute on arrival, an infringement of immemorial custom and usage amounting, I submit, to a grave discourtesy. If I am told that she was unable to fire the recognised 21-gun salute owing to the fact that her saluting guns had been removed, I have no doubt that your Lordships will judge of the validity or otherwise of such an explanation. In that case it would be pertinent to ask whether the Russians asked permission to be excused from observing this time-honoured international courtesy.

While the ship is in port the Russian officers and ship's company are offered traditional British hospitality. They refuse, on the plea of pressure of work, the invitations extended to them by the British Council and by various Scottish official and public bodies. We learn from the Press, however, that they are able to accept and to partake in full measure of large scale entertainment by the Scottish U.S.S.R. Society. The day arrives for the final handing over of the ship. The Russian Commodore refuses permission to the Press to go on board to witness the ceremony. The British Admiral who goes on board to receive the ship back makes a civil and friendly speech which is interpreted to the Russians—he wishes them bon voyage on their return journey. Does the Russian Commodore respond? Does he thank the British Admiral for his good wishes? Does he acknowledge the hospitality which has been offered to him? Does he tender the thanks of his country for the loan of "Royal Sovereign" and for the other British vessels? He remains completely silent.

Let me interject here, that I do not necessarily condemn the Russian Commodore personally for this boorishness. It may well be that he was acting under orders. There is, in my experience, an almost universal comradeship between sailors and navies of all nations, and I would hesitate to believe that such an affront and such ill-mannered behaviour were an expression of the Russian Commodore's own personal feelings. The melancholy fact remains that what could, and should, have been a memorable, pleasant, colourful and perhaps even an historic occasion, became a sombre, colourless event of shabbiness and gloom. The transfer was effected in sullen silence. Your Lordships may be interested to learn that the official designation for this operation—or "code term" is, I fancy, the term applicable—was "Operation Happy Return." My Lords, a friend writes: I thought before this that we had touched bottom, but I was wrong. In truth all nations must now realise that the way to get your way with the British is to kick them in the face. Those are strong words, but are they altogether unjustified? When von Ribbentrop gave His Majesty The King a Nazi salute the nation was not slow to voice its disapproval and disgust. When the Russians give us no salute at all, shall Parliament and His Majesty's Government be dumb? Shall the voice of the nation be stilled? I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I appreciate that much interest was taken by the public, and by some members of your Lordships' House, in the return of the warships which were loaned under conditions which have been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, and which are well known to your Lordships. The noble Lord said he would not mince his words. I think, however, that there is some misunderstanding as to the exact position, and in the course of the very short time that I propose to speak, I will endeavour to give the facts as they were reported to the Admiralty by a very efficient naval officer acting in a liaison rôle between the Admiralty and the Russian Commodore concerned.

It is true that the original plan for the return of the "Royal Sovereign" to this country contemplated that she would reach Rosyth between January 19 and 24. The understanding between the U.S.S.R. and this country, however, was that the battleship "Royal Sovereign" and the Italian battleship, which was to be transferred from Italy to Russia, should arrive simultaneously at their respective ports of delivery. Delays in the Mediterranean, of which we were well aware, in connection with the Italian battleship, necessitated adjustment of the "Royal Sovereign's" original programme, and it was agreed between the British and Soviet Governments that the "Royal Sovereign" should sail for this country on January 27. The ship adhered to this revised programme, arriving at Rosyth on February 4, at the prearranged hour. So the noble Lord need have no apprehension in regard to the delivery of this battleship in accordance with the arrangement which was made, negotiated in the first instance by the Four-Power Committee which was sitting, and agreed to between the Governments of the two countries. Indeed, these facts were announced by the Civil Lord of the Admiralty in another place on January 26, when it was made known that the delay would occur. In view of the explanation that I have given of the reason for the delay in the sailing of His Majesty's ship "Royal Sovereign" I do not think any question of an explanation or apology from the U.S.S.R. authorities arises.

The noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, emphasised the importance of saluting. I agree that it is essential that foreign warships visiting this country, or British warships visiting other countries, should pay due regard and respect to the country, concerned on the occasion of their visit. But the difficulty, which was made known to us, in relation to this matter was that the "Royal Sovereign" carried no saluting guns, these having been removed when she was modernised for war service before being transferred to the Soviet Government in 1944. The firing of salutes would therefore have had to be carried out from 4-inch guns, a most unusual arrangement which would have involved the preparation of special charges for saluting purposes. The British naval authorities had the matter explained to them, and fully understood the situation; and from the information which I received there is no question of there having been a studied affront by the Russians. Such an affront would be completely out of keeping with the manner in which the Russian Commodore and the crews discharged all their other traditional courtesies. Indeed, it may be said that the Russian Commodore was punctilious in the discharge of all the courtesy calls and visits, both on naval authorities and on civic authorities, which are traditional when the warships of one country visit another. The extent to which the commanding officer of a visiting ship accepts additional hospitality is a matter entirely for his discretion—whatever the country to which he may belong—and I have no desire to seem to criticise such refusals as the Commodore may have felt himself compelled to make.

I may say that many of the offers of country tours and hospitality, and so on, made by British official bodies were for periods within the working hours in the ship (and the crew of the ship was, of course, an ad hoc body) whereas the invitation of the Scottish U.S.S.R. Society, which was accepted, was outside those hours. I know that reference has been made to the fact that the Lord Provost of Edinburgh paid his call upon the Commodore of the ship before the Commodore paid his respects to the Lord Provost. These visits were arranged between the Lord Provost and the Commodore of the ship, who met at the international Rugby football match and agreed to reverse the order of their calls. So there was no question of any discourtesy there.

With regard to facilities for the Press, the Russian Commodore indicated that his regulations allowed him no latitude at all in this respect on board a Russian warship. His refusal to give permission to our Press-men was, therefore, in accordance with his orders, and it is not seemly to criticise a commanding officer for carrying out his instructions. As the ship was still under the Russian flag until the transfer had been completed, the Soviet usage—which I understand applies to all Russian ships—was naturally the correct procedure so far as the Russians were concerned. But as soon as White Ensign was hoisted the "Royal Sovereign" again became a British ship, and the Press-men were admitted in accordance with the British custom.

On the question of speeches, which was raised by the noble Lord, I should explain that the Russian Commodore excused himself from making a speech in response to that of the British Admiral on the ground that such pronouncements were not customary in the Soviet Navy. May I say that from the friendly and appreciative expressions which the Commodore used in his conversations with the British Admiral, and from the signals which he exchanged with that officer before returning to his country, I am convinced that the fact that he did not make a public speech is to be attributed to the different customs in the navies of the two countries?

On the final point, I need say no more than that the loan of the "Royal Sovereign" and other British warships to the Soviet Authorities was made under conditions well known to your Lordships, and at one of the most crucial periods of the war, in the interests of the successful prosecution of the war, and was thus to the advantage of both countries. I would add that, from the reports which have been made to me, I take the view that, as between the navies of the two countries, the outcome of the re-transfer of the "Royal Sovereign" and other ships may reasonably be pronounced a distinct success. And if the public of this country will appreciate the difference in methods and system as between this country and Russia, I am convinced that they will understand what the situation was. I can say that as between the British naval officers and the Russian naval officers—and, indeed, as between other ranks as well—the atmosphere throughout was amicable, and on parting was most cordial. I look forward to similar experiences to that of the relationship established between the crews of the two navies, when other ships which were lent to Russia return to this country in the course of the coming few months.