HL Deb 16 November 1961 vol 235 cc788-92

6.13 p.m.

THE EARL OF CORK AND ORRERY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether there is sufficient information upon the sinking of the British ship "Clan Keith" on November 6 off Tunis to decide whether the explosion was inboard or outboard; and, further, if the explosion was inboard, whether it could have any connection with the series of explosions going on in the world at the present time. The noble and gallant Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Unstarred Question in my name on the Order Paper. When the Question appeared, it seemed that a certain section of people thought that I was going to divulge some secret knowledge about the unfortunate loss of the "Clan Keith". I, of course, have no such knowledge. I am not in the position to get it. But I want it to be recorded—and this is the object of my standing here and saying this—that that explosion ought not to be treated as just an ordinary sea event, unfortunate, sad, but not out of the way. That ship was a fine British ship belonging to the Clan Line, which is a very good line, well officered, well-commanded and all well found. That 7,000-odd ton ship has gone to the bottom. Whether the explosion was internal or external remains to be seen.

If the explosion was internal, it would be a serious thing and would need to be followed up; but if it was external, as the papers say and as it is understood the captain has said, of course, it may be comfortable to write it off and say it was an ordinary catastrophe—another ship gone. But if it was an internal explosion, I believe that if the trail of the bomb were followed up, it would lead to something very serious and give us a warning.

What would be the motive of enemy agents in this country in getting rid of one of our ships? I suggest a motive at once. The motive is that it is many years since the first consignment of enemy explosives was landed in this country and they cannot just be put there—they need a test. What better test could they have, what more realistic test, than to put a bomb into a British ship and blow her up? That would be a good test and I consider that it is a feasible one, too. As I say, the Clan Line is A.1 in everything, but in a crowded port it is not difficult to pass a box. I know that I shall be interrupted and told that I am, wandering, but I am trying to make a case why this examination should be a very thorough one. If the bomb was internal and if the trail is properly followed up, it may lead to valuable discoveries; but if the explosion were external, it would be well to brush it off, give it a routine inquiry and then no further notice.

It is a difficult point to put, but the captain is said to have already given his view that the explosion was an external one. With all due respect to him. I think that he would be predisposed to give that opinion. It was very heavy weather. The ship was blown up and sinking, and I do not think he was considering whether it was in or outside his ship. He was thinking about his passengers and crew and how to get them out of it. He had no time to go into these details. I would suggest that not too much weight should be put upon that evidence.

What would be the trail it would lead to? It might lead up to where certain people kept bombs, where the ingredients were. They are all there, and it might well be that they wanted to fire those bombs as the first test; and as war approached would start shipping bombs into the various ships, and we should be handicapped to the extent that the ships were blown up in that way.

I am putting it very badly, but I feel that in this case, and under the conditions in which we now live, this matter should be closely gone into and should not be brushed aside as an unfortunate incident. I raise my voice to-day only to get an assurance that the Government are looking into this.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry to say to the noble Earl that there is not at present sufficient information available for me to give as full and proper an answer to the Question that he has posed to us as he would probably have liked. He will appreciate, as will your Lordships, that, for reasons which I shall come to in a minute. I cannot follow him along the lines of thought which he has put to us. I think the thing is for me to do the best I can with what can now be said.

As the noble Earl told us, the "Clan Keith" sank off North-Western Tunisia and it was reported that she broke in two following an explosion. The weather in the area at the time, I gather, was very severe. The ship carried a total crew of 68, of whom 54 were residents of Pakistan, 3 of South Africa and 11 of the United Kingdom. First news of the casualty was received from the motor vessel "Durham Trader" which, during the morning, encountered one of the lifeboats of the "Clan Keith" carrying 5 survivors, including the master. Two further survivors were later picked up from the water by the Finnish tanker "Nunnalahti", but one of those survivors unfortunately died. Her Majesty's Cruiser "Blake", with the frigates "Plymouth" and "Rhyl", the destroyer "Diana" and the French minesweeper "Narvik", went to the scene and, together with aircraft and other merchant vessels, searched the area for further survivors, but, I am sorry to say, without success. They did see wreckage and a number of empty lifeboats. Therefore, my Lords, it must be concluded, unfortunately, that 62 members of the crew have lost their lives in this very sad occurrence and I am sure the House would wish to join with me in expressing our deep sympathy with the bereaved relatives.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport has insufficient information in his possession at this moment to arrive at any view of the probable cause of the loss of the "Clan Keith". He has ordered a preliminary inquiry into the casualty under Section 465 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. The master and other survivors, who have been flown back to the United Kingdom by the owners of the ship, are co-operating with the officers of the Ministry who are conducting the inquiry. When sufficient information has been obtained to enable my right honourable friend to arrive at a considered view on the nature of the casualty he will decide whether to order a public formal investigation.

I am sure that neither the noble Earl nor the House will expect me to anticipate a decision which my right honourable friend, I am sure your Lordships will agree, rightly prefers to take in the light of the fullest information obtainable. I think I may say, however, that it would be unusual if a formal investigation were not ordered into a casualty in which such heavy loss of life has taken place. But, meanwhile, it would be clearly wrong to prejudge in any way the results of the preliminary inquiry or of any formal investigation that may be ordered. I can, however, assure the noble Earl that this matter will not be, as he put it, brushed aside. He will appreciate that I cannot follow him and cannot discuss what he suggested to us on the subject of bombs and so on. But as I say, due attention will be paid to what he has said to-day and this investigation will be treated, as I hope all such investigations are treated, with the utmost seriousness and pursued, as I think it must be in this case, to the ultimate to which it is possible to pursue it. I hope the noble Earl will feel from what I have said that the matter will be properly and seriously treated.