HL Deb 20 December 1960 vol 227 cc963-72

9.19 p.m.

LORD TEYNHAMrose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they can state the reasons for the decline in numbers and organisation of the Coastal Forces of the Royal Navy, in view of their great importance in the event of either a local or global war and their use in training young officers to handle ships at sea. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I feel that at this late hour I should perhaps apologise to your Lordships for bringing this Question before you. On the other hand, in my humble opinion I feel that it is quite unnecessary to try to push through the Weights and Measures Bill before Christmas, almost to the exclusion of many other important matters like the Bill we have just been discussing. That is as it may be. I have set down this Question in the hope that I may be able to persuade the First Lord of the Admiralty, in the forthcoming Navy Estimates next year, to divert a little money towards the re-establishment of Coastal Forces.

In the first place, I should like to remind your Lordships that at the present time the Royal Navy has only a skeleton squadron of three patrol boats, three Coastal Farces ships, operated by two crews based on H.M.S. "Dolphin" at Gosport. In fact, my Lords, there is virtually no Coastal Forces organisation in existence at all. A great deal of money was spent by the Admiralty on the "Brave" class between the years 1954 and 1958. Why not keep the momentum going? Otherwise, this money will certainly be wasted. There is no doubt that the Russians possess motor torpedo boats and motor gunboats in large numbers—I believe at least 400. These boats are of very modern design and are reputed to be fitted with gas turbine machinery. They are based not only in the Baltic and the Black Sea but also in the Far East; and a number of these vessels have been supplied to the Chinese Navy. These little vessels, these tiny ships, are frequently seen watching our minesweeping squadron off Hong Kong.

It has been argued that the British Navy do not now require these craft, as they did in the last war, because the Russian flotillas would be battled up in the Baltic and would be taken care of by N.A.T.O. forces. I believe this assessment of the position to be completely unrealistic. We have, in fact, as your Lordships know, built a large number of minesweepers which will certainly require protection from the coastal forces of the enemy, some of whom will undoubtedly operate outside the Baltic and will attack these sweepers. What is more we shall require these Coastal Forces for offensive operations against Russian shipping. Also, if we are to make use of coastal convoys in a conventional war we shall require these craft for their protection. Aircraft never can and never will be able to give full protection to a convoy.

It is no use imagining that we are going to be able to build up Coastal Forces at short notice. After the First World War, the Coastal Forces organisation was closed down in 1922. In 1937 it was started again and remained very ineffective until well into the last war. At the later stages, however, MTB's were very effective indeed and were achieving the highest proportion of hits for torpedos expended in the Navy. And, last but not least, these vessels have a great potential as anti-submarine craft with the use of sonar buoys and horning weapons in conjunction with helicopters and aircraft.

My Lords, the facts are that we can never hope to have a sufficient number of frigates to cope with the Russian submarine menace, not only on the ground of cost but also because for some time to come we shall have insufficient highly skilled technicians to man more than the limited number of the very expensive and complicated large anti-submarine vessel which we have to-day. Their speed is little, if any, more than the modern submarine. I maintain that we must supplement these very expensive and valuable ships with smaller and cheaper vessels in large numbers: something rather larger than the present type of coastal craft—and, of course, with very high speeds. Two or three private shipbuilding interests already have plans available for such vessels, and these ships would be capable of mounting the heavy type new asdics. The argument that we must have a big ship in order to get value from modern anti-submarine procedure really does not hold water at all. A smaller and simpler ship can do all that is necessary. At one time we had a N.A.T.O. commitment for the supply of Coastal Forces. What has become of this arrangement? Have we withdrawn from it? And, if so, for what reasons has this been done?

There is another matter of great importance. I think it is true to say that Coastal Forces are invaluable for providing a first-class training in command for the young naval officer. Gaining command at an early age, he is able to develop qualities of leadership and is taught to think and act quickly. At the same time he can obtain technical training, in torpedoes, gunnery, navigation and so on—in fact the lot—far more quickly than he would on a larger ship. But above all, it teaches him to understand the principles of operating warships against the enemy—an operation which is much more difficult to learn when he is in a larger ship. Not only does this excellent training apply to officers, but it also applies to the ratings. It gives them a wide training outside their normal ship experience. It makes them self-confident, alert and altogether far more efficient seamen.

The modern Coastal Forces are a great advance on the war-time craft. A maximum speed of 50 knots is now obtainable, and a cruising speed of 45 knots, with a range of 400 miles. But what has now become of great importance is the extended range of 2,000 miles which is now possible at slow speed. It means that these powerful little warships, with a suitable mother ship, can operate far from their home bases. It would not be difficult to think of many occasions when ten of these vessels operating overseas would be preferable to one frigate costing the same amount of money.

There is another very important aspect of Coastal Forces which should not be lost sight of. Coastal motor gunboats and motor torpedo boats are being bought by foreign countries, not only those within the N.A.T.O. Command but by others. Many of these smaller countries have always looked to us for their naval shipbuilding, and they rely on the Royal Navy to do their development for them. This, of course, is now no longer the case, and these countries are going elsewhere for their little ships, with the result that valuable export orders are being lost from this country to Germany and to Norway. My Lords, unless we maintain the specialised shipbuilding knowledge in this country, we shall have no base on which to expand our Coastal Forces in an emergency.

I hope that the First Lord of the Admiralty will give serious consideration to what I have put before your Lordships this evening. I have drawn attention to this important aspect of naval policy in this way as I was anxious that it should stand clear from any future debates on the Navy Estimates and in the earnest hope that the First Lord will see his way to embodying a Coastal Force organisation when he presents the Navy Estimates next year. We must not forget that we can have nearly ten MTB's or MGB's for the cost of one frigate, and I would rather see one of these costly ships delayed in building than have an inefficient and inadequate Coastal Force. In my humble opinion, an important branch of the naval service has been neglected, and valuable experience has been lost, both to officers and to men; and I maintain that matters should be put right at the earliest possible moment.

9.28 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Teynham in the Question which stands in his name on the Order Paper. My noble friend has covered the subject so exhaustively and so ably that I will not waste your Lordships' time by covering the same ground. But, my Lords, all our long history of maritime and amphibious warfare shows the need for, and the important part played by, these small ships—which I think is, in many ways, a better name for them than "Coastal Forces". Surely, my Lords, the motor torpedo boats, the motor gun boats and the M.L.'s of World War II are by way of lineal descendants of the cutters, pinnaces, sloops and bombs of earlier campaigns. You have only to study the history of the campaigns of the Napoleonic wars; Hawke's close blockade of the French coast, culminating in the battle of Quiberon Bay; Nelson's blockade of the French, and Drake's blockade of the Spanish coasts, to learn of the very important part which all these small ships played in these operations. I hope very much that the First Lord will be able to tell us that the Admiralty are giving serious consideration to an early revival of Coastal Forces or small ships.

My Lords, I also hope that the Admiralty will approach, or perhaps are approaching, the problem with a fresh mind, so that the new generation of small ships may be both speedy and seaworthy. I hope, in particular, that special attention will be paid to ease of maintenance under active service conditions—and I emphasise the words "under active service conditions". In 1943, my duties on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, involved me in an examination of the naval manpower situation in the Mediterranean. If my memory serves me aright, I found that no fewer than 14,000 men were employed in the Mediterranean, the majority of whom were shore-borne and were in aid of maintenance and repair of these craft. I feel that in this new generation of small ships very special attention must be paid to this maintenance and repair question under active service conditions.

I will not waste your Lordships' time by telling you of the special arrangements which we math to keep these craft serviceable and in operation during the Italian campaign; I am sure that the Admiralty have complete records of the special steps which were taken, and which were very effective. I do not think it is any use producing craft like this unless the question of maintenance and ease of repair under active service conditions is given high priority. In conclusion, my Lords, I would just say that, in my view, the time has come to give the small ships, and all they need, a very high priority in the queue for money.

9.32 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support the remarks of my noble friend in his Unstarred Question, I should just like to state that I understand that the Admiralty have spent between £2 million and £3 million, over a period of time, on the development of the "Brave" class of coastal forces, and that it is understood that they have a speed of between 10 to 12 knots over that of any other M.T.B. at the present time. I believe that H.M.S. "Brave Swordsman", during a demonstration some while ago, achieved a speed of 54 knots; and these craft have also a good sea-keeping ability. It seems a pity that while the Navy has put in so much time, work and research oil these craft, there should be any idea of closing the Coastal Forces and even the training squadron stationed off Portsmouth.

British technical skill appears, from all reports, to have great superiority over that of other countries, so far as the building of these craft is concerned, and it seems to me that we have a great chance of being able to sell these boats to uncommitted countries abroad, such as Turkey and Greece; but unless we incorporate some of them into our own training squadron, at least in the form of prototypes, these small countries cannot possibly believe that we are being very serious in our outlook towards them. It is difficult for people, whether from the Admiralty or from firms working under contract to the Admiralty, to go out to try to sell these craft abroad, when people discover that our own Navy has not a great deal of interest in them. I think that is an important matter, because in all ways the Shipbuilding industry is in great difficulties, and this is a side of it which, it seems to me, needs a certain amount of support both from the Admiralty's point of view and from the point of view of the firms working for the Admiralty. With those few words I shall resume my seat.

9.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am certain that nobody in the House will quarrel with the tribute which has been paid to Coastal Forces this evening. The little ships of the Royal Navy have had a long and honourable history and a fine record of achievement, more particularly, perhaps, in the last war, as my noble friend Lord Ampthill knows; and it will be plain to everyone that the decision to take nearly all our fast patrol boats out of commission in 1957 was one which was regretted by everybody in the Royal Navy, and not least by the Board of Admiralty. But, of course, there were very good reasons for doing it, and these were explained at the time.

Those who have spoken this evening have argued very convincingly for Coastal Forces. In the time that I have been at the Admiralty, I have heard many of your Lordships, and a great many people outside the House, argue even more convincingly for more ships of almost every kind and class. Some advocate more aircraft carriers, and a very good case they make out. Others want to double the strength of our anti-submarine forces; and I should be the last to deny that we should like more escorts. Others argue for more commando carriers, or assault ships, or conventional submarines, or nuclear submarines, or Polaris-type submarines. All of these would no doubt make a very valuable contribution to the strength of the Navy; but these things cannot be argued in isolation. There is a limit to our resources, and we cannot have all of these things, however much we should like them.

First of all, may I say that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, would agree with me that we should not be fighting a war against the Russians single-handed, without the help of any of our allies. Of course we should not. I cannot visualise any set of circumstances in which this could happen and in which we should be called upon to face the whole weight of the Russian attack without the aid of our N.A.T.O. Allies and, more particularly, the Americans. But even if this were not so, I cannot for one moment believe that the noble Lord is suggesting that we in this country, in our present economic position, could match ship for ship, in isolation, the enormous resources of the Russians. Even if it were physically possible to do so, we should soon be bankrupt and useless to our friends and Allies. It is, of course, a question of priorities and of striking the right balance between the various arms of the Navy to match the threats which we are most likely to have to face.

That is the special responsibility of the Board of Admiralty. In exercising it, a good many difficult and unpopular decisions have often to be taken. In 1957 when it was decided to reduce the size of the Armed Forces, the Admiralty were faced with just this problem. They had to consider the three-fold task which the Navy had to carry out: in peace time the maintenance of peace and stability all over the world; in limited war, the support of our land forces in action; and in global war, the provision of an effective contribution to the combined naval forces of the West. To meet these tasks, we had to be prepared to face in many directions at the same time. We had to have a fleet of mobile, versatile ships.

The value of Coastal Forces is not, of course, in dispute; but their value is virtually confined to one set of circumstances only—the circumstance of global war. With their comparatively restricted endurance, their usefulness in other kinds of war is at best problematical, and they can make no contribution to the winning of the cold war. They were, of course, valuable in training young officers to command, but since the decision was taken to run down Coastal Forces we have increased the numbers of coastal minesweepers in commission, and these not only provide equally good and in many ways better independent commands for young officers, but have a much greater peace-time and limited war value. We came to the conclusion, therefore, that our resources would be better spent on ships with greater all-round capability, and, as it is, we have scarcely enough of these.

But, having said that, my Lords, it does not mean that the Navy has abandoned Coastal Forces altogether. The threat which we are facing can take many different forms, and it would be rash to predict that we shall never have any more use for Coastal Forces. A nucleus has been kept alive with three fast patrol boats in the Trials and Special Service Squadron, so that this special art of sea warfare will not be lost. Another nine boats are in operational reserve to meet our N.A.T.O. commitments. We have, therefore, preserved the foundation on which the Force can be rapidly re-built if ever it will be needed.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before ten o'clock.