The Board of Inquiry to which I have previously referred has now completed its full investigations, and the results have been carefully examined by the Admiralty. For operational reasons alone, I cannot go into the full details of the unfortunate loss of the two vessels off Milford Haven. I can however assure the House that in the findings of the Board there is no question of the disaster being attributable to negligence. In order to meet the varying requirements of modern war, numerous types of small craft have to be built, and the wide range of the war makes it necessary for such vessels to be moved, not only round our own coasts, but also on.occasions even further afield. That this has been done with so few accidents is to the credit of the authorities concerned and of the crews of the craft themselves.
The fundamental cause of the tragedy at Milford Haven was that the weather changed suddenly, in spite of favourable forecasts. A deep depression came over at a speed far greater than expected. In spite of modern science, circumstances of this nature do sometimes arise, and it was unfortunate that on this occasion these barges encountered a high wind and sea and an unfavourable tide in a difficult and dangerous area. The vessels were sailed in good weather and with the prospects favourable, but unhappily the weather, after a sudden change, deteriorated with a rapidity unusual even for St. George's Channel. The commanding officers never-the less decided that they could make Milford Haven. They arrived off the place at midday on 25th April. By this time conditions were severe, with a full gale blowing onshore and with a heavy and confused sea.
The-flag officer in charge at Milford Haven at once took steps to secure that every possible attempt was made to bring these craft safely into the harbour. He sent two tugs and two trawlers to their assistance, and diverted H.M,S. "Rosemary," an escort vessel which was in the area, to the scene. These vessels did all in their power under most dangerous and difficult conditions to help the barges to safety. They succeeded in passing a tow several times, but owing to the heavy seas the tow parted on each occasion. Finally the barges foundered, one at 6 p.m. on the 25th and the other at 1 a.m. on the 26th. In spite of all the strenuous and gallant efforts by the rescue ships, 72 members of the crews of the barges lost their lives, as well as the six members of the crew of "Rosemary's "whaler, which was launched in a courageous attempt to pick up survivors.
I should like to express the deep sympathy of the Board of Admiralty with all those who have suffered bereavement as a result of this tragic occurrence.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is alleged in the neighbourhood where this happened that the occurrence could have been prevented had the officer on the spot had authority to cancel the instructions, and, if that is so, can arrangements be made that that will be done in future?
The right hon. Gentleman said a tow had been thrown twice and that bath times it was ineffective. Is any regard going to be paid to that fact in order to see that the tows that are used are better tows than these and able to take on the task that was asked of them?
Such things are always kept most carefully under review as a result of every inquiry which reveals anything bearing on them, but, as anybody who knows, that coast will realise, in a very, very heavy gale and with such seas as there were on that occasion, it would require something almost supernatural to overcome the assaults of nature.