asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether the Board will consider requiring 24 hours' notice of courts of inquiry being given to any man whose career may be gravely affected; and whether it is proposed to place witnesses at courts of inquiry on oath in the way practised at military courts of inquiry?
As my honourable and gallant Friend is aware, Naval Courts of Inquiry are not judicial bodies, and in view of their wide objects as set forth in the King's Regulations it is considered that their usefulness could be reduced rather than increased by applying the restrictions proper to a Court of Law. My honourable and gallant Friend is incorrect in stating that it is the practice at Military Courts of Inquiry, other than those held on recovered prisoners of war or as to illegal absence of soldiers, to place witnesses on oath. The convening authority is legally empowered to order sworn evidence to be taken, but the power is only used in exceptional circumstances. The question of obtaining statutory authority for conferring the same power on the authority convening a Naval Court of Inquiry has often been considered, but no sufficient reason for changing the existing law has been found.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Commander Daniel stated in evidence that he had only 10 minutes' time in which to collect his evidence and that that was responsible for his reading of portions of Captain Dewar's letter in the ward room which led to a very serious state of affairs?
The Board of Admiralty have now had an opportunity of reviewing the Proceedings of the Courts-Martial on Captain Dewar and Commander Daniel, at which Rear-Admiral Collard gave evidence. They have also received a letter from the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, fully explaining the events which led up to and resulted in the suspension from duty of these three officers.
At about 10.30 a.m. on Saturday the 10th March, the Vice-Admiral Commanding the First Battle Squadron brought to the Commander-in-Chief the letters from Captain Dewar and Commander Daniel which formed the subject of the charges at the Courts-Martial, and which he had received from Rear-Admiral Collard an hour previously. They had been left with Rear-Admiral Collard by Captain Dewar the previous afternoon.
The lack of time available for dealing with the situation was partly due to the fact that, though Commander Daniel was ordered to send in his reasons regarding the incident on the 5th March, it was not until four days later that the letter from Captain Dewar, enclosing that from Commander Daniel, was given to Rear-Admiral Collard.
It was clear to the Commander-in-Chief from the terms of these letters, which alleged a state of indiscipline in the "Royal Oak," that an immediate inquiry was necessary. A very serious and difficult situation was thus created in view of the fact that the Fleet was due to sail at 4 p.m. on the next day, Sunday, for the most important exercises of the year.
The Commander-in-Chief immediately convened a Court of Inquiry, the members of which were three Flag Officers. It commenced its sitting at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday and sat continuously until 8 p.m., when the three Flag Officers, having arrived at their finding, at once reported the result verbally to the Commander-in-Chief, but all the shorthand evidence was not available for the Commander-in-Chief until about midday on Sunday. It was impossible to delay the departure of the Fleet beyond Monday morning, and immediate action was therefore necessary. The Commander-in-Chief considered it clearly undesirable that the "Royal Oak" should sail with the three officers on board, and, as has already been announced, he ordered the Rear-Admiral to strike his flag and superseded the other two officers.
In taking this action on his own responsibility, the Commander-in-Chief reported that he considered it impracticable to put into a telegraphic summary all the evidence, facts and considerations which guided him, that any abbreviated account would be liable to misinterpretation and would be insufficient to enable the Board to make a decision. In any case, such a telegraphic report, which must have consisted of several hundred groups of cypher, could not have been despatched by him before Sunday evening, and a reply could not possibly have been received before the departure of the Fleet at 6 a.m. on Monday. He therefore felt it to be his duty to take the responsibility on his own shoulders and to issue the orders he did, without submission of proposals to the Board.
Unavoidably, Commander-in-Chief's action gave the incident publicity at Malta, and statements gained currency which magnified the situation that had arisen in the "Royal Oak." The Board, however, consider that, in the peculiar circumstances existing at the moment, the action of the Commander-in-Chief was correct, the position in which he was placed being due to the time at which it had been thought fit to put forward the complaint and to the exaggerated picture presented of the state of discipline in the ship.
On this question of discipline, time was obviously required to check the real facts. The Commander-in-Chief reported on the 19th March that after a week's careful consideration and observation he believed that the impression conveyed by Captain Dewar and Commander Daniel as to the bad effect upon the discipline and moral of the ship caused by the incidents complained of was greatly exaggerated, and he has since reported that he is entirely satisfied that the discipline and moral are excellent.
It is also made clear by the evidence given at the courts-martial that these incidents were in no way indicative of any systematic want of consideration or habitual fault finding in the "Royal Oak" on the part of the Rear-Admiral but were simply isolated occurrences. The matters on which they arose should have been quite easily settled had there not been an unaccountable failure amongst these three officers of high rank to show the good temper and common sense normally found amongst all ranks and ratings.
The Board are of opinion that the initial blame for what has happened lies with Rear-Admiral Collard, who dealt with trivial causes for dissatisfaction in a manner unbecoming his position, and showed himself unfit for further high command. As already stated, he has been deprived of his command, and the Board with regret have now decided, in spite of his good services in the past, to place him on the Retired List under Order-in-Council of the 21st April, 1922, which authorises the Admiralty to retire officers of any rank in such cases.
The other two officers have been tried by Court-Martial, and in each case have been sentenced to be severely reprimanded and dismissed their ship. The Board have decided to confirm the sentences, though they are of opinion that in Commander Daniel's case no offence was proved under the second charge based on Article 11 of the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions. The sentence inflicted by the Court in his case, however, was justified by his conviction on the other three charges on which he was tried.
As it has been suggested that the offences committed by these officers were more or less technical in character, the Board think it necessary to say that they have taken a grave view of their conduct. Commander Daniel, having been ordered to make a report to the Captain in writing on certain events connected with the departure of the Rear-Admiral from the ship on the 5th March, supplemented the paragraphs complying with that order by additional paragraphs partly containing unnecessary comment on the Rear-Admiral based on hearsay, and partly making criticisms of an improper nature. The Board are of opinion that an officer of his experience must have been well aware that the procedure for making complaints, which is a most important and essential safeguard, must not be used as a vehicle for using language subversive of discipline about the superior officer complained of. Captain Dewar, in a case in which he was intending to make complaints of his own, should have deterred his junior officer from going beyond the formal report of the facts which he had been ordered to prepare, or alternatively should have used his experience to advise his junior officer to put into a respectful Service form any complaint which he intended to forward. In fact, he did not discourage Commander Daniel in the course which he actually took, but accepted his report. The conduct of both officers was contrary to the traditions and best interests of the Service.
The Board by their confirmation of the Court-Martial sentences on these two officers have sufficiently marked their sense of disapproval of their conduct, and have therefore decided that these sentences shall not preclude them from further employment in due course when suitable vacancies occur.
Finally, although it is clear that in this case the officers concerned should, from their position in the Service, have had no doubts as to the proper manner in which to bring forward complaints, the Board are making a careful review of the relevant Articles of the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions in order to ascertain whether there are any grounds for the suggestion that officers and men of less experience may be uncertain how to act if they have a complaint to bring against anyone of superior rank.
When the First Lord speaks of "further employment," am I to understand that that means further employment at sea; and is he aware that in the case of an officer of the rank of Captain Dewar, unless he gets in his sea time, further promotion in the Service as an Admiral is denied him, and that it would, therefore, be possible for the Admiralty, while employing him on shore, to cut short his further career in a higher rank? May I be reassured on that point?
I am quite aware of these circumstances, but I cannot give the hon. and gallant Gentleman an undertaking that he will be employed, because the number of vacancies is limited, and I must wait until a suitable one occurs. We never make it a practice in advance to undertake to give such employment.
Lieut. - Colonel Sir FREDERICK HALL:
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that any good can possibly be done by publishing the whole of the evidence? Is it not a great deal better that we should leave the matter where it is, relying upon the sympathy which has been expressed by my right hon. Friend, and at the same time adding the hope that it will be in the very near future that these two officers will regain employment?
I am heartily in agreement with what my hon. and gallant Friend (Sir F. Hall) has said. With regard to publishing the whole of the proceedings of the Courts-Martial, I must say, without giving a definite refusal, that I see no great advantage to be gained by doing it. There are very few people who, like myself, have read through the whole of the evidence of the Courts-Martial, five hundred or so pages of folios, closely typewritten, and I am sure that publishing the whole of it would be a very extravagant thing to do. Considering that a great deal of the evidence at the Courts-Martial was a constant repetition of the same point, and that all the facts, certainly the facts of any importance, have appeared in the public Press, I do not think that the House would wish large expense to be incurred for so doubtful a result.
Arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's previous reply with regard to the re-employment of these officers, does the First Lord realise that what he has told the House is that Captain Dewar, who is a senior captain, has lost his turn through being superseded? Is it the intention of the Admiralty to give him further employment at sea before his time for retirement is reached?
I have told the hon. and gallant Member that I cannot give a more conclusive statement. I think it is perfectly clear from what I have said what the wish of the Admiralty is, but these things cannot be promised in advance.
I was given an undertaking by the Admiralty that Commander Daniel and Captain Dewar would he acquainted with the charges before they left for Gibraltar. I want to know who was responsible for framing two fresh charges and for postponing the Courts-Martial after their arrival at Gibraltar. Was it the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief?
I should like notice of that question. As regards the postponement of the Courts-Martial, that was to meet the very point on which the hon. and gallant Member asked a question a moment ago. He asked why they were not given more notice. The gallant officers had to be given due notice of the new charges.