HC Deb 05 June 1945 vol 411 cc683-7
49. Mr. Rhys Davies

asked the Prime Minister whether he is now able to give information as to the transfer of vessels from the British Navy to the Red Fleet.

The Prime Minister

This is a very long answer, Mr. Speaker, so with your permission and that of the House I propose to give it as a statement after the Question period has ended, as there are so many other Questions to be answered.


The Prime Minister

After the Italian Fleet had surrendered the Soviet Government raised with the Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States the question of handing over to the Soviet Government a number of Italian war- ships and merchant ships. The Soviet Government represented that they had waged war against Italy in alliance with His Majesty's Government and the United States Government, and that the Soviet Navy would make good use of any ships so handed over for prosecuting the war against the principal enemy, Nazi Germany.

The ships for which the Soviet Government asked were:

  • 1 Battleship
  • 1 Cruiser
  • 8 Destroyers
  • 4 Submarines
  • 40,000 tons of merchant shipping.
These ships the United Kingdom and United States Governments agreed, at the Teheran Conference, should be made available to the Soviet Navy.

His Majesty's Government later pointed out however that the Italian ships were built to sail in the temperate waters of the Mediterranean and were unsuitable for immediate service in the severe climate of the Northern Seas where the Soviet Government proposed to employ them. It had moreover to be borne in mind that the Italian Navy had sailed forth from their ports to join the Allies in defiance of German orders, that they were pursued by aircraft and suffered losses in vessels and personnel, including one modern capital ship. Their surrender was received by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham in Malta harbour and must be considered an honourable naval event. The accession of the Italian Fleet to the naval forces of the Allies was, at that time, definitely helpful. Some served in the Mediterranean as warships, others as warship transports, and a good deal of valuable work was done by them. They also served in the Indian Ocean and on anti-blockade runner patrols in the Atlantic. Their dockyards rendered important service.

The question then arose of how to meet the very reasonable and natural request of Soviet Russia. His Majesty's Government did not wish to see Italy, at that moment, deprived of its Navy, which was an essential part of the national life we are resolved to preserve. We therefore proposed that the request of Soviet Russia for this share of the Italian Navy should be met by the United States and Great Britain. Accordingly it was further agreed that the Italian ships should, for the time being, continue to serve the Allied cause, which they had done with discipline and vigour, and that an equivalent number of British or American warships and merchant ships should be delivered to the Soviet Navy on temporary loan. This leaves the issue of the disposition of the Italian Navy to the Peace Conference, which I hope will take place some time or other, it being quite usual that wars should be followed by Peace Conferences.

The following action was therefore taken. Half the merchant shipping and all the warships, with the exception of the United States cruiser "Milwauki," were provided by His Majesty's Government. The British warships handed over to the Soviets were the battleship "Royal Sovereign," eight ex-American ("Town" Class) destroyers and four modern submarines. A further non-operational "Town" Class destroyer was made available to provide spare parts. Full details, including names and tonnages of all these ships, will be circulated in the Official Report.

The Russian sailors came to the United Kingdom in the spring of 1944 and spent some weeks here working up the ships preparatory to taking them to North Russia. When this important Fleet of 13 vessels sailed into the Russian harbour of Murmansk, a good impression was made upon our Soviet Ally, and I received a message of thanks from Marshal Stalin himself. I feel bound to state that I take full personal responsibility for this transaction. The units of the Royal Navy have since then been operating as part of the Red Fleet. The destroyer "Churchill" and submarine "Sunfish" have been lost on active service and the remaining ships will continue on loan to the Soviet Government until otherwise agreed between the two Governments.

Mr. Rhys Davies

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for that very explicit statement, which ventilates a problem that has troubled a good number of people, may I ask whether the time will arise when there will be a settlement of this account between the two fleets; and whether the House will be able to discuss this matter?

The Prime Minister

I certainly think the House of Commons should discuss this matter, very likely when the next Navy Estimates are presented, or even earlier, but it will be a new House of Commons. So far as the settling of accounts is concerned, I consider that the heroic contribution of the Soviet Armies to the breaking of the spirit of the German Army, and driving them into rout and ruin, constitutes a claim against which we should not attempt to place the provision of these particular vessels on loan.

Mr. Ivor Thomas

Now that operations against Germany have ceased and there is so much need for shipping in the Pacific, has not the time come to consider the return of these vessels to the Royal Navy for use in the war against Japan?

The Prime Minister

These would not be vessels that we should use in the war against Japan. Admittedly, they are of an older type, and we send to the other side of the world only the best and newest ships, because the cost and difficulties of maintaining them there make it worth while to send only the best and newest, and the Americans would not thank us if we brought older vessels. On the other hand, I could not think of anything so ungracious at this moment as to suggest to the Soviet Government by withdrawing these vessels that we had any objection whatever to their having a fleet and training their men for a powerful fleet and an adequate mercantile marine free to traverse all the oceans of the world.

Mr. Shinwell

When the right hon. Gentleman says that he accepts personal responsibility for what was, undoubtedly, at the time a very fine gesture, would he agree that this was a War Cabinet decision?

The Prime Minister

Certainly it was. All the actions which I have taken are War Cabinet decisions, and when I was ill at Marakeesh I telegraphed this project home to my colleagues and they all accepted the proposal, but as I was the principal inaugurator of it, and as it seemed to be coming under question, I thought I would say that I would take responsibility on account of my prominence in the matter. But my colleagues are equally bound with me in this, which was a very serious step, involving the transfer of so many of His Majesty's ships; and as the House has taken it so well, I invite former colleagues on the opposite Bench to share the credit.

Following are the details:

List of Ships Transferred.
H.M.S. Royal Sovereign 29,150 tons
H.M.S. Brighton Town class 1,090 tons
H.M.S. Chelsea
H.M.S. Churchill
H.M.S. Georgetown
H.M.S. Leamington
H.M.S. Richmond
H.M.S. Roxborough
H.M.S. St. Albans
(non-operational) H.M.S. Lincoln
H.M.S. Sunfish 768 tons
H.M.S. Unbroken 646 tons
H.M.S. Unison
H.M.S. Ursula

In addition to the warships 20,000 tons of merchant shipping was also transferred.