HM Submarine Affray

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:01 pm on 14th November 2007.

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 8:01 pm, 14th November 2007

I am not sure what my hon. Friend means by his reference to an error of judgment. Perhaps we need to talk about that matter outside the House.

A particular point to which the investigations were directed was to ascertain the position of the snort induction valve since, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that would have confirmed whether the Affray was actually using the snort mast at the time of the accident.

Meanwhile, the board of inquiry made its final report on 6 August 1951, and its conclusions were broadly similar to those of the interim inquiry. The report found that the submarine was lost because of the material failure of the snort mast, which broke off without warning. The resultant rapid influx of water resulted in the submarine dipping markedly by the stern, becoming increasingly heavy and sinking to the bottom.

The board of inquiry report stated that the rapidity of events did not allow the release of position indication signals. It believed that the crew died rapidly, that the submarine was materially sound and that the crew had confidence in her and her captain. Finally, the report stated that the search organisation was rapidly and energetically implemented.

On 14 November 1951, the First Lord of the Admiralty—Mr. J.P.L. Thomas, the then political head of the Royal Navy—made a statement to the House. He noted that there was no certainty as to the reasons for the loss of the Affray, although the broken snort mast might be either cause or consequence. He also stated that any attempted salvage of the Affray would take up large resources, that it might not be successful and that it would put other lives at risk. He said that he had therefore decided that no such attempt should be made. An obvious consequence of that was that any recovery of bodies could not be prudently undertaken.

I am aware of the recently published book about the loss of the Affray, and of the suggestions that it makes. A study of those suggestions has been carried out by the naval historical branch, and it has been concluded that there is no reason to disagree with the findings of the board of inquiry.

One suggestion made in the book is that somehow there was collusion between the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, while the board was still sitting. The contention is that those individuals had decided to find that the loss was due entirely to the fractured snort mast and that the outcome of that collusion was relayed to the board. However, that directly contradicts the doubt expressed by those same people about the reasons for the tragic accident, and the fact that they ordered further diving to be carried out in an attempt to ascertain more information. The allegation of collusion does not stand up and there appears to be no documentary evidence that such collusion took place.

In 2002, the remains of the Affray were designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. In consequence, no diving or other underwater operations may take place within a defined zone around the wreck without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State for Defence.

Submarines of the same class as Affray have been out of service for more than three decades, and no diesel-electric submarines have been in Royal Navy service for several years. The subsequent safety record of the Royal Navy submarine service has been excellent; indeed, Affray was the last submarine lost at sea. A submarine is a complex ship operating in an environment that is intrinsically hostile, even in peacetime.

Although it is deeply regrettable that the Affray accident resulted in such severe loss of life, including that of the father of my hon. Friend's constituent, I do not think reopening the investigation will give scope for learning significant lessons today. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we have to balance the potential for gain in reopening the investigation with the intrusion on what is, in effect, a military grave.

I shall consider my hon. Friend's request for a meeting, but I do not want to appear cruel or callous so I do not want to hold out hope that I am minded to reopen the investigation. After such a huge length of time, I really do not think that there is reason to do so. I shall talk to my hon. Friend after the debate about the point he raised in his intervention and will try to understand it further. I shall reflect on his request for a meeting but I do not want to promise it at this stage.