British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry

Day 4 - Continued

The Commissioner:
The best thing for him to do, having regard to the telegram which told him that there were submarines 20 miles south of Coningbeg, was to make a move and get clear.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, get out of the danger zone.

The Commissioner:
He would remain in the danger zone.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, he would have remained in it, but he would not have remained in it for anything like the same length of time.

The Commissioner:
Do you mean to say he got out of the danger zone?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
He did not get out of the danger zone, but he got out of the danger zone as to which he had information by wireless, namely, that there were submarines operating off this part of the coast of Ireland. It may be that he would meet with fresh dangers, but, of course, he has got to deal with dangers as they occurred. The dangers as they were occurring, as the wireless had told him, were there were submarines off the south coast.

Admiral Inglefield:
Coming up his danger is minimized, because he is in the dark there until he arrives off Liverpool.

The Commissioner:
Where would he have been when it became dark supposing he had followed this course?

Admiral Inglefield:
It would have put him just in St. George's Channel.

The Commissioner:
Can you give me a chart which shows it?

Admiral Inglefield:
He would be just there (pointing to a chart).

Lieut.-Commander Hearn:
I think we made out that at the speed he was going, taking into account the tides, the moment of danger would be minimized.

Admiral Inglefield:
Therefore from this point his danger would be minimized, in that he would be running in the dark from here up to Liverpool Bar. This part would be traversed apparently in darkness.

The Commissioner:
Very well. You say that he would be about here, Commander Hear, at half-past seven.

Lieut.-Commander Hearn:
About here at half-past seven.

The Commissioner:
And you take it that it was coming on dark then at all events?

Lieut.-Commander Hearn:
It would be about sunset then.

Admiral Inglefield:
Sunset on that say was at 7.30. May I point out that he would have been under high land here and the sun would have been setting over there, and he would have been equally more in safety inasmuch as he could not have been observed against the skyline.

The Commissioner:
He would be here, and then he would have his run to Liverpool in the dark.

Admiral Inglefield:
Yes.

The Commissioner:
And that is one of the things that he is advised as far as possible to do.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
May I also make this suggestion? The submarines of which he had been told were the ones that were away by Cape Lear, and the others were those which were operating off Coningbeg.

The Commissioner:
Coningbeg is there, is it not? (Pointing to the chart.)

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. In truth and in fact the submarine that succeeded in getting him was one which had not been reported to him, or he looks for one which had been reported to him, and which was apparently coming from the southward. It was a submarine apparently some way away when seen four points on the starboard bow. Now that shows the danger of the submarines, which were operating off the South Coast of Ireland, speaking quite generally, and I submit that that to a large extent makes good my point that it would have been undesirable that he should have remained in the place where apparently there were quite a large number of submarines, some know to the Admiralty and others unknown to the Admiralty. The more of that ground he was covering and the longer the time he remained in that part of the ocean, the more possible it was for the submarine to get him.

The Commissioner:
It is a question of prudence.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, it is a question of prudence. He has to choose and he must exercise a good judgment. I mean to say, we have the very great advantage of knowing so much now which was unknown to him then; we are sitting upon the matter in cool judgment, with an opportunity of looking at the charts, and the circumstances under which we are dealing with it were not the circumstances under which the Master would have an opportunity of dealing with it.

Now, my Lord, to continue with regard to these notices, on page 6 the Attorney-General puts to the witness the one on 15th April: "Daily Voyage Notice. For the purpose of the Government War Insurance Scheme the Admiralty consider all voyages may be undertaken subject to local conditions, except the following: - German submarines appear to be operating chiefly off prominent headlands and landfalls. Ships should give prominent headlands a wide berth where not otherwise directed in these notes. Ports such as Dover should be passed at utmost speed." Now, the direction there which concerns me is that "Ships should give prominent headlands a wide berth." The word "wide" is an elastic term and as the Master said in answer to Sir Edward Carson: "What is a wide berth?" He, in fact, although he wishful, and properly wishful, to get a fix, a four-point bearing off the Old Head of Kinsale, was much further out from the headland than he would be under normal circumstances. The blue line, your Lordship remembers, marks the ordinary line; so that, in fact, again the Captain was seeking to give effect to the Admiralty instructions, and he rightly or wrongly though that he was giving a wide berth, and it is also to be remembered that at the time when he hauls in those 30 degrees to the northward - that is at 12.40 - prior to that he has had the information, namely, at 11.30, of the place where the submarines are operating. In consequence of that wireless he has made up his mind to in fact, keep much closer to the northward than he would otherwise do, namely, pass up close to Coningbeg. The key-note to my mind, upon the point I am putting to your Lordship to his conduct is the information which he got from the wireless at 11.30, and the determination in his mind, in consequence, of that information, to go close to Coningbeg. My submission is that in view of that, this man did not contravene or disregard this Admiralty instruction on the 15th of April.

There is one other message on the 22 nd of March: "Warn homeward bound British merchant ships that when making principal landfalls at night they should not approach nearer than is absolutely necessary for safe navigation. Most important that vessels passing up the Irish or English Channel should keep mid-channel course." I know which is the English Channel, but I have been wondering, and those who assist me in this case have been wondering, what is the Irish Channel. Is it to be considered as the water south of Ireland, or is it to be considered as the Channel on the East Coast of Ireland? On the East Coast of Ireland a glance at the chart shows that there is undoubtedly a channel there, but it is very difficult indeed to say what is the channel and what is the mid-channel when dealing with eh South Coast of Ireland. The waters are extremely broad.

The Commissioner:
On the South Coast of Ireland there is no channel.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
That is what my suggestion to your lordship is. That is the difficulty. We have been considering the language very, very closely, and we have come to the conclusion that it is probable the Irish Channel, in which you are to keep the mid-channel course, is off the Eastern Coast of Ireland.

The Commissioner:
Is that St. George's Channel? ( pointing to the chart.)

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. St. George's Channel or the Irish Channel.

The Commissioner:
Is it sometimes called the Irish Channel?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes, sometimes. My point is that there is really not a channel on the South Coast of Ireland at all. There is a channel up there (pointing on the chart); whether it is a narrow channel or not is another matter, but there is really no channel there. When you get through this narrow channel, then my submission is that you are in the Irish Channel, so that if it could be suggested that there was any impropriety in the Master not steering a mid-channel course, my submission is that this particular advice on the instruction on the 22 nd of march has no application to this case; but the Admiralty are there desirous of telling mariners that it is most important that vessels passing up and down the Irish Channel or the English Channel should keep a mid-channel course.

My Lord, the next document which was put to the witness was this. It is not an instruction, but of course it is none the less valuable in consequence of that. I understand the way the Captain gets at it is this, and it gives the mariner the result of the experience of the Navy. It tells him this: "War experience has shown that fast steamers can considerably reduce the chance of a successful surprise submarine attack by zigzagging, that is to say, altering the course at short and irregular intervals, say, 10 minutes to half an hour. This course is almost invariably adopted by warships when cruising in an area known to be infested by submarines. The underwater speed of a submarine is very low, and it is exceedingly difficult for her to get into position to deliver an attack unless she can observe and predict the course of the ship attacked. It is believed that the regulations of many steamship lines prescribe that the master shall be on deck whenever course is altered" - and so on.

Now, my Lord, with regard to that, the position that the Captain took up when he was giving his evidence here was that he had misread that, and he thought that it meant you were to zigzag after you had sighted the submarine. He agreed with Sir Edward Carson, looking at it in view of the fact that Sir Edward has called attention to the matter with some closeness, that his early construction was probably wrong. After all the man was not a lawyer.

The Commissioner:
I do not think it requires a lawyer to construe that.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I think I have got a very much better answer than that -

The Commissioner:
Than the Captain had?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. It was for this reason that I, at the outset of my remarks, emphasised the fact that I did not think the Captain in giving evidence always did full justice to his own case. For instance, your Lordship may remember that he mentioned not a word about Coningbeg till after lunch. When I said to him after lunch, "Now pull yourself together and think before you answer, he said: "Oh, yes, Coningbeg; I have forgotten all about it."

The Commissioner:
He had not seen the point.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Oh, yes, he had, my Lord. And where I make my position good with regard to the Captain is this, that the Board of Trade had written a letter to Messrs. Hill Dickinson, asking them to direct the Captain's attention to certain points, and as the result of that, he had drawn up a proof which was put before your Lordship, in which he alluded to the fact of his going so close to Coningbeg. So that long before Sir Edward Carson was taking him through these matters and pointing these things out to him, he had in answer to the leter [sic] from the board of Trade told Messrs. Hill Dickinson, "Oh, yes, I was going close to Coningbeg."

The Commissioner:
Just read me the passage.

The Solicitor-General:
It is in the Shorthand Note. "On the morning of the 7th May, at about 11.30 a further wireless message was receive which reported submarines in the Southern part of the Irish Channel and last heard of 20 miles South of Coningbeg Light Vessel. I then decided to pass close by Coningbeg and at 12.40 p.m. after Galley Head was sighted on the port bow, I altered course gradually to 30 degrees more to the northward to N. 63 E."

The Commissioner:
Yes, that is it.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
So that it was an excellent defense, in my submission, which the man had overlooked. We were unhappy about it somewhat, because then came the luncheon interval. I need hardly say that not a word passed between us and the Captain, but we got it here, which was sufficient for our purpose, and there it was.

Now, I was merely making those observations in order to show your Lordship that the Master has not really done the best for himself in his evidence. Now, that leads me to this point with regard to the zigzagging. I said I had got a much better point I think than the Master's statement that he had misread this advice. My point is this: According to the state of the facts which I mentioned to your Lordship this morning, Mr. Besteg [sic], and those associated with him, were at the time in question doing what was perfectly legitimate, I submit, and perfectly proper, engaged in taking a 4-point bearing, and it was during that half an hour that the catastrophe happens. If they had been zigzagging, they could not have carried out the operation of taking the 4-point bearing.

The Commissioner:
Is that so?

Admiral Inglefield:
Yes. They must run steady on a direct course at a regular speed while the bearing is being taken.

The Commissioner:
So that the zigzagging would have defeated that object.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
It would have defeated a legitimate operation in navigation. There is the Old Head of Kinsale some four points on the port bow, and you run on until you get to it, and the result of that is that you get an isosceles triangle. The distance run from the point where you get the object four points on your bow until you get abeam, tells you that that is the distance at right-angles of the object which you are off on the land or on the sea, so that id during that period of time they were zigzagging, it would have been quite impossible.

The Commissioner:
Then the way you put your argument is this, that it was a proper thing for him to be taking this fix off Kinsale, and he could not do it if he was going to zigzag, and therefore zigzagging as not a proper manoeuvre in the circumstance.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
That is my point, my Lord, upon that. Mr. Laing points out that it is not an order that the man was disobeying, but, of course, for all that, it is valuable advice.

The Commissioner:
Well, I do not think there is much difference between "advice" and "order."

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No, my Lord. Mr. Laing mentioned it, but I must confess I do not appreciate the value of it.

Then, my Lord, on page 8 of the Master's evidence there is an instruction or advice on May 6th: "Take Liverpool pilot at Bar, and avoid headlands. Pass harbours at full speed: steer mid-channel course. Submarines at Fastnet." Well, that was in the nature of a telegram and not in the nature of an instruction, but there again he is informed that the wish of the Admiralty is that, where it is practicable and where it is reasonable and unless the special circumstances of the case forbid, you are to steer a mid-channel course. That is a point I have already dealt with and it is not necessary to deal with it again.

Then, my Lord, we come to the telegrams that the Attorney-General put to the witness, and that, I think I am right in saying, exhausts the directions or instructions that were given to ship masters with regard to the best means of avoiding the submarine menace. My Lord, it really comes to this, I think: three possible grounds of condemnation, namely, that he was not steering a mid-channel course, but he came too near the shore. I have dealt with that, I submit. He was entitled to do what he did. Secondly, that it might have been wrong for him to be zigzagging. I have dealt with that. And thirdly and lastly, that it was improper of him when he had an available speed of 21 knots to be going at 18 knots. Now, with regard to that, the position that he took up was this: I wanted to arrive in the neighborhood of Liverpool at such time as I should not have to be waiting there. Your Lordship may remember that when Mr. booth was giving evidence he said that was one of the matters that he and Mr. Mears, the registered manager, discussed with the Captains and impressed upon them. Mr. Booth said that it was notorious that submarines had been operating in Liverpool Bay, and in consequence of their having that information they had impressed upon Captains: Do not arrive at such a time of the tide that you have to wait outside the Bar; and, my Lord, it was for that reason that he saw fit to reduce his speed. Now, if your Lordship is with me as to the impropriety of consuming the time by zigzagging out here, then I submit it is logical for me to say that I am entitled to your Lordship's judgment -

The Commissioner:
How long does it take to get what you call a fix?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
It all depends upon the distance you have got to run in order to carry out your 4-point bearing.

The Commissioner:
I am thinking about this zigzagging. When did he begin the operation?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
He began the operation at 1.40.

The Commissioner:
He told me that it was not complete at the time when the torpedo struck the ship.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I think it was 1.50, not 1.40, which is better for me. He began at 1.40, and he had not finished it at the time when the torpedo struck the ship. I think I am right in saying that it was 1.50 in fact, and not 1.40, and the Admiral tells your Lordship that it is highly probable that it would take half an hour.

The Commissioner:
And the torpedoing was at what time?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
At 2.10, and she sank at about 2.26.

The Commissioner:
Then there was just about the time to complete it.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No doubt it was just on the point of completion. There was some evidence that she was further off.

The Solicitor-General:
The master said 8 to 10 himself.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes. They thought 15, and there was evidence that at the time Mr. Thomas was saved, and no doubt to some extent he changed that evidence, he asked the tug master where he was, and the tug master said, "Oh, at least 15 or 16 miles, because we are outside our fishing limits," and she had been running into the land at the time Mr. Thomas asked the question, but I do not wish to labour that point, as to what was the precise cause.

The Solicitor-General:
Do not the S.O.S. calls show it as 10 miles?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I do not think it is very material to the question whether it was 10 or 15 miles. Your Lordship in the early part of my address, I think, put the question to me: Is it legitimate to override the Board of Trade regulations by an Admiralty instruction? It is suggested to me that your Lordship had that in your mind. I mean to say, first of all, for the safe navigation of the ship she must be navigated so that she does not get on rocks or the shore; secondly, give effect, if you can, to the Admiralty instructions so as to avoid the submarine menace. What a careful man out to do, I submit, is, as far as he can, give effect to both, but there may be special circumstances where it is impossible to give effect to both. Now, if you get your ship ashore in fogy weather, there is certain to be trouble, and in the circumstances of this case what the Captain was doing, and I submit was rightly doing, whilst he knew and appreciated that he had got submarines to deal with, he also appreciated the fact that he must navigate his ship in such a way that he would ascertain his position which he could do by getting his 4-point bearing, and then, having got that, he would be able to make his departure from that point in such a way that he could get through this channel in order to steer an appropriate course. So he has got both matters to consider: the Board of Trade Regulations which deal with the ordinary navigation of the ship, an also the avoidance of the submarine menace.

The Commissioner:
What Board of Trade Regulations affect this matter?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Well, there are the general Board of Trade Regulations, that you are to make your landfall and that you are to ascertain your position, and if you cannot make a good landfall when you know you are somewhere in the neighborhood of the Coast of Ireland, you are to take soundings which will more of less inform you of where you are; at any rate, warn you as to your position and distance from the land by reason of the nature of the bottom and by reason of the depth of the soundings which you get.

The Commissioner:
Your contention, as I understand, is this, that in each case the Captain must use his judgment to see which is the overriding advice or direction.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
Yes; and in the same way whilst these instructions from the Admiralty are, of course, of great value, the Master always has to say to himself this: Here I have got the general instructions that I am to keep in mid-channel, but if in addition to that the Admiralty inform me by wireless that by going into mid-channel I shall meet with dangers which thy are wishful I should avoid, you leave out on one side the special instruction, and on the other side he applies his mind to the special circumstances of the case. Your Lordship asked a question on the occasion when the evidence of the Master was being taken in this room with regard to the operations of the submarine in the neighborhood of Liverpool and off the Liverpool Bar. I have got a list, and I have also got a covering letter from Sir Norman Hill, if I may be allowed to hand it to your Lordship.

The Commissioner:
Which you received this morning?

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
No; the letter from Sir Norman Hill came, I think, two days ago. Shall I read the letter?

The Commissioner:
Certainly.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
He writes it directly to me: "At the request of the Cunard Steamship Company, Limited, who are members of this Association" - that is the London and Liverpool War Risks Association, Limited - "I write to state that from the 30th January up to the present date we have regarded Liverpool Bay as a very dangerous area, and we have issued most stringent instructions to Master of all vessels entered in this Association to avoid anchoring or reducing speed whilst making the entrances to the Mersey. On the 30th January, two vessels, 'Linda Blanche' and the 'Kilcoan' were attacked by submarines in Liverpool Bay, and on the same day a third vessel, the

'Ben Cruachan' was attacked by a submarine off Morecambe Bay light vessel. On the 20th February the 'Cambank' was sunk six miles to the eastward of Pont Lynas by a submarine. In consequence we arranged with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board to shift the Pilotage Stations to off the Calf of Man, and for some time we instructed by wireless and otherwise the masters of all vessels to take their pilots at that station. The only Pilotage Station is now at the Bar. On the 9th March the 'Princess Victoria' was sunk in Liverpool Bay by a submarine. From that date there have been no vessels attacked in Liverpool Bay, but we have received constant warnings of the presence of submarines in the Bay, and even close to the Bat, although the Bay is constantly patrolled. Within the last few days a submarine has been sighted more than once off the Great Orme's Head. The information embodied in this letter has been communicated to the members of this Association for the guidance of their master, but it would be against my instructions to make this information public."

My Lord, I submit, for the reasons I have indicated to your Lordship, that the right answer, as far as the Captain is concerned, is to say that he is not to blame. It is not necessary to say so, but I might say that sometimes the Wreck Commissioner has seen fit to say that even if the Captain has failed, the worst is an error of judgment. My submission is that there is neither error of judgment nor blame.

The Commissioner:
Is there any reason to be found in this evidence for charging the owners with negligence of any kind, because that is one of the questions put to me? Let me see what they say: "Does any blame attached to the owners of the 'Lusitania'?"

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
I think Mr. Clem Edwards made some suggestion in view of the fact that we were using 19 boilers instead of 25, that that constituted negligence, but I submit that there is no substance in that.

The Commissioner:
No, I do not think there is anything in that, subject to what the Solicitor general has to say to me.

The Solicitor-General:
Your Lordship will of course understand that the function of the Board of Trade here is not to conduct any prosecution of any kind, but merely to assist the Court to arrive at a knowledge of the facts in as far as possible a complete perspective. Of course, had this inquiry been conducted in public, your Lordship would have had the assistance of counsel, who would presumably have been concerned, or would have thought themselves concerned, to establish as against either the owners of the master some degree of responsibility. I draw that inference from the observations actually made by some of the learned counsel who addressed your Lordship yesterday. Having regard to the circumstance that public considerations have made it impossible to conduct this inquiry in public, your Lordship has no such assistance. All the considerations that can be urged on behalf of the Master have been urged by Mr. Aspinall, and I propose under the circumstances I have indicated to state, not of course as presenting any view on behalf of the Board of Trade, because it is not their duty to form or state an opinion, but I propose to lay before your Lordship some considerations, which might or might not lead to an opposite conclusion to that on behalf of which Mr. Aspinall has contended.

Now, my Lord, there is one point on which it is suggested to me that, in fairness to the Captain, I ought to offer a short explanation. Your Lordship has in mind a cable of the 6th of May which was addressed by the Admiralty to all British merchant vessels homeward bound. It begins in the extract I have: "Keep a course in mid-channel and so not make Capes. There are submarines off Fastnet. Keep at full speed passing any Harbours. Two Light Vessels off Folkestone; pass between them. Keep within two miles off shore while between Folkestone and South Foreland. Meet pilot at Liverpool Bar." Has your Lordship got that?

The Commissioner:
No I have not got it.

The Solicitor-General:
It is one of the 6th May.

The Commissioner:
There are two on the 6th of May. One, "Submarines off the South Coast," and another, "Take pilot at Liverpool Bar."

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