HC Deb 30 October 1911 vol 30 cc659-67

On this Motion, I desire to call attention to the subject of military aviation, with special reference to the provision of aeroplanes and the training of officers. I am well aware it is somewhat inconvenient to raise this important question at this hour of the evening. At the same time a large number of persons in this country who speak with authority feel a certain amount of anxiety with regard to the British Army in connection with this particular branch of military science. The Under-Secretary for War made a statement on the subject, on the 18th July, in this House in which he outlined the intentions of the Government with regard to military aviation. I think a further statement on his part would be very welcome to-night in order to assure us how far these intentions have been carried out and what the future policy of the Government with regard to military aviation is to be.

Since the right hon. Gentleman made his statement last July I venture to say considerable fresh light has been thrown upon the value of military aviation by the result of the French manœuvres on the eastern frontier. I assume the right hon. Gentleman has received reports from the British officers who attended the manœuvres, but although I do not attach any importance to my own view, as one who followed the manœuvres, I may say that to the ordinary observer the general impression conveyed by following the operations of the troops was certainly that the aeroplane is destined in the future to play a very important part in military operations. I am of opinion that many of the statements that appeared, both in the Press of this country and in the French Press were certainly exaggerated, and there can be no question that the weather conditions that prevailed during the greater portion of the manœuvres were exceptionally in favour of aeroplane operations. At the same time I think it was made quite evident to anyone who had the opportunity of watching what went on in the course of these manœuvres that information can be obtained by means of aeroplane reconnaissances which it is quite impossible to gain in any other way. I do not think I am over-stating the case when I say it was made quite evident that any army in the future which takes the field either unprovided, or inadequately provided with an efficiently trained corps of officers, and with machines of the very best type, is taking very serious risk indeed if it is to meet an opponent who is efficiently provided with these means of obtaining information.

In view of the general expression of opinion that has been made as to the results of the French manœuvres, I cannot help thinking that the right hon. Gentleman's statement on Thursday is very unsatisfactory. In one answer to a question he stated that whilst the French Army possessed no fewer than 200 aeroplanes the total provision in the future as well as the present of the British Army was sixteen aeroplanes. As I understand it, the effective fleet of aeroplanes at present at the disposal of the Army amounts only to ten effective aeroplanes, that is to say, to bring up the number to the grand total of sixteen, which the right hon. Gentleman anticipates, we shall have to purchase six new machines. I understand that two officers who are members of the Army Air Battalion, are at present visiting France, and I hope a portion of their expenses are being defrayed by the War Office. I understand they are attending the aviation trials taking place at Rheims under the French Government, and no doubt they will bring back information and recommendations with regard to the purchase of machines. Apart from the purchase of foreign machines I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give some consideration to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lee) last July that it was highly desirable that some prizes and special inducements should be offered to British manufacturers in order that they might construct a machine suitable for service requirements. I think it is highly desirable that some encouragement should be given to British manufacturers of aeroplanes and aircraft generally. The expenses of experiments are exceedingly great, and, as the right hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware, experimental machines do not always turn out practical successes. I think it is most undesirable that in the event of an emergency we in this country should be dependent upon foreign-built aeroplanes. The French Government are fully alive to the situation, and I understand they are offering at the competition which is taking place at Rheims prizes and purchase money amounting to about £40,000 for successful machines. I think there is no doubt that the encouragement which aviation has received from the French Government has in itself assisted France to take that front rank which she occupies in aviation amongst the nations.

With regard to the sixteen aeroplanes which the right hon. Gentleman tells us are to be provided in the future he may remember that in the statement he made in July he told us that the War Office had decided that between 100 and 150 officers would be required as pilots. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will have something to say to reconcile the two statements which seems of a rather opposite character. The fact that only sixteen aeroplanes are to be provided seems to me to indicate a change in policy since the last statement was made, which I can only say seems very regrettable. At the present time, in spite of the statement made last July, there are, as a matter of fact, only six officers of the Army Air Battalion actually engaged in flying, and unless there are very good grounds indeed for supposing that the military authorities of other countries are totally wrong, and have completely over-estimated the value of aeroplanes, we are running a very serious risk indeed in thus almost totally neglecting this particular branch of military science. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will say that a very considerable number of officers have obtained their pilot certificates and gone back to their regiments, but that does not meet the case. If we are really going to have an efficient corps of airmen, it is highly desirable a large number of officers should be permanently engaged in this work, which requires continuous practice. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some information with regard to the question of pay, about which considerable dissatisfaction still exists, and also as to the provision of winter quarters. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us that in the future greater encouragement will be given to the officers and men, and fuller and more generous recognition of the undoubtedly valuable services which they are rendering to the Army and State.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Colonel Seely)

I shall be very glad to make a short statement in the brief time at our disposal in reply to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite. The House would be interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman had himself been to the French manœuvres where the aeroplane showed its value in a striking degree, and I shall be very glad if he places at the disposal of our Department any observations he made. May I say at once the idea the hon. Gentleman seems to have in his mind that there is any going back in the policy I announced some few months ago is quite erroneous. Far from that, we are going forward with the development of this new art with the determination to bring this country up to a proper standard and indeed to a high standard in matters of aviation.

We propose to issue almost immediately the terms under which officers will be able to obtain a position as Army airmen. Any officer who passes the text and obtains the Air Club certificate, for which of course he has to pay by attending one of these aviation schools, will receive £75. I do not know that that will in all cases cover the whole cost, in some cases it will more than cover the whole cost—but that is the sum paid to the officer who passes the Air Club. After obtaining his certificate, he will be attached to the Army Air Battalion for instruction in those branches of aviation which are of special value for military purposes. To be able to steer in the air from the stars or compass, to be able to draw an accurate map, and, what is more difficult, to be able to steer by a map—all these special things which an airman will have to know he will be taught at the Army Air Battalion. At the end of that time, if he succeeds in passing and obtaining the certificate, similar to the French military certificate, he will become an Army airman, and will be so described in the Army List, and will be available for this vitally important service if the occasion ever arises. Those officers who have already joined the Air Battalion and who have received £50 will receive the extra £25 without delay. After these Army airmen have passed all these tests, it is proposed they should be attached periodically to the Air Battalion for what we call in the Army refresher courses, and from what I have been able to ascertain about flying I should think these refresher courses would have to be very frequent in order that they may master this very difficult art.

The hon. Gentleman wants to know how many aeroplanes we have. He pointed out that in an answer I gave the other day I said we had sixteen aeroplanes available, or about to be available. I was glad to give that answer because it is much better we should know exactly how we stand. It does appear that we have far too few, but then the comparison is with France, which in this matter is far ahead of the rest of the world. We have alone hung back in the matter of aeroplanes because we wanted to make sure of buying the most useful type. But we could not keep on waiting for ever. Still we thought we could afford to wait until we could arrive at a decision as to the best type of aeroplanes for the Army. We have at the present time, in various stages, nineteen aeroplanes. I admit that one is broken beyond repair and one is quite out of date. Others are more or less under repair. What we have been doing has been to try the different types. I have here a list of the different types, of which we have eleven—some very good and some very bad—seven biplanes and four monoplanes, and these our Army officers as well as the civilians attached to the Air Battalion have been flying. We have, however, learned most useful lessons from these different types of airships and are now engaged in testing some of the more speedy monoplanes. We are arriving at a point when we think we see our way to choose what is the best type, first for teaching people to fly, and secondly, to buy for the purposes of war should war unfortunately break out.

As soon as the moment for choice comes—and it will come very soon—we propose to purchase a fairly good number of aeroplanes on which a large number of officers, who no doubt will be forthcoming on the terms I have announced, will be able to fly. Of course, Army flying is quite different from civilian flying. It seems obviously very little use for a man to go up by himself, and for war purposes you must have a machine which can carry two men—one to steer and the other to observe. Therefore we want a very special type of aeroplane for the Army. The hon. Gentleman asked about the prizes. The specification of prizes for Army aeroplanes are now practically completed. The points to be decided are only the total amount, and what is more important still the distribution of the sum of public money to be given as prizes for the best Army aeroplanes. Very shortly—certainly before the end of the year—I hope we shall be in a position to announce the prizes which the War Office and the Admiralty—the Government as a whole in fact—propose to offer for Army and Navy aeroplanes.

I may say, in conclusion, that we fully realise the immense importance of aerial scouting in war. An aeroplane can do work the value of which can only properly be realised by those engaged in war. It enables one to see the other side of the hill. It has now passed out of the region of conjecture whether aeroplanes can or cannot ascend in all reasonable weathers and observe the movements of large numbers of troops. Finally, it is vital for any country which has an army to have an efficient aeroplane survey. That is realised by both the War Office and the Admiralty, and the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty are giving their earnest attention not only with a view to getting a good aerial scouting service for each Department but are co-operating with the idea of working together in this as in other matters in order to provide a really efficient scouting service for both the naval and military services. How much advantage there would be to the State if in all matters there were complete co-operation between the Navy and the Army it is unnecessary to dwell upon, but I can assure the House that in this, as in other matters, there will be full, co-operation between both Navy and Military services; indeed, the Government as a whole realise the vital importance of this service and will press forward all necessary matters to maintain the defensive forces of this country at a high level of efficiency.

Colonel YATE

Would the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the grant of £75 for training? The cost of training was stated at £100. Why should we try to cut the wretched officer £25 out of that £100? I would seriously ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the matter, and, if possible, give even a little more than the cost. The right hon. Gentleman said that an adequate number of aeroplanes would be provided, but, so far as I can gather, he gave no number. I understand we have sixteen. Is that number to be raised or not?

Colonel SEELY

It will be raised.

Colonel YATE

To any fixed number?

Colonel SEELY

It will be raised greatly, but I cannot say the exact number.

Colonel YATE

May I ask how many officers are now trained?

Colonel SEELY

I said in my previous statement that we proposed that at least 100 officers should be trained as observers and pilots, and with that number we propose to work in the first instance. In addition to them there will be non-commissioned officers and other ranks who will also be trained in this service.


There is one point in regard to this matter I should like to emphasise; that is the proper utilisation of voluntary service in connection with aviation. The right hon. Gentleman alluded to the civilian aspect of the question. Information has reached me which shows that the War Office have not encouraged the private man outside as they might have done. I would seriously ask, in view of the possibility of war, and the immense service aviators must now render, whether the right hon. Gentleman would not reconsider the whole question of calling into utilisation the whole of the private flyers throughout the country. A friend of mine who is one of the first three British flyers told me that he had offered his services to the War Office. His age was twenty-seven, and he was told he was too old for his services to be taken advantage of. At that time he had offers from two foreign governments, and the result I do not know, but I promised to bring the matter under the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. If I mentioned the name the whole House would know that his services should be taken advantage of. The right hon. Gentleman ought to have a proper official in charge of the whole service, a man of the highest possible standing, who would have authority at the War Office, and who by his own capacity had shown himself worthy of such a position. He should encourage to the utmost the private flyers outside. They get very little encouragement, and it costs them a small fortune before they make any headway at all.

The amount of money which has to be spent is something colossal, and the country concerned does not encourage them to any great extent. The third thing I wish to impress on the right hon. Gentleman is to make it easy for these men, first to give their services to the country to which they belong; at present they are being tempted by three or four foreign countries. Even in connection with the war between Italy and Turkey my friend had an offer a few days ago to go into service. Japan, as the right hon. Gentleman is probably aware, has also made overtures to several of our leading flying men. The duty of the War Office and the British Government ought to be to place all grounds of temptation out of the way of these men who have sacrificed their financial position for the next few years in learning this art.


The hon. Member has asked the right hon. Gentleman to encourage private individuals in experimenting in this way. I go further, and ask him if he could not encourage those who are really connected with the service, especially in regard to cross-country flights. I understand as matters stand any experiments in that way have to be carried on at the expense of the individual, and although they may be refunded later on, they are at any rate out of pocket for a considerable time. If the War Office could see their way not to keep them out of their money and to find money for experimenting, undoubtedly it would remove a certain amount of dissatisfaction, and also facilitate many men who have not private means to join in the experiments which are so necessary if this art is to be properly encouraged.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen minutes before Twelve o'clock.