300.115 (39)/565

The British Embassy to the Department of State 23


His Majesty’s Ambassador has now received instructions in regard to the points set forth in the State Department’s Aide-Mémoire of January 19 [20?]. His Majesty’s Government greatly regret the delays which have been imposed on American shipping entering and leaving the Mediterranean and hope that by the methods set forth below these delays will be greatly reduced. They also declare that there is no substance in the contention that they have discriminated against American ships in favour of Italian ships, as the considerations advanced in this Aide-Mémoire will, it is hoped, clearly establish.

His Majesty’s Government regret, of course, that it is necessary to impose any controls at all on American shipping, but the exercise of the contraband control in its various forms is the main instrument whereby at present the Allied Governments are exercising pressure on Germany in order to compel it to free Poland and Czechoslovakia and to relieve the threat to the liberties of the world involved in German military aggression. In order to exercise this control in a manner involving the least delay and disturbance to neutral shipping, and especially that of the United States, His Majesty’s Government fell in with the suggestion made by the Secretary of State very early in the war that they should consider whether some system of investigating cargoes before they left the United States, similar to that which operated in the last war, could not once more be established. The outcome was the institution of the navicert system which has now been in operation for just over two months. The navicert system is not a method of rationing neutral countries, nor does it involve any control by the British Government of American trade or traders. In so far as there is interference with normal freedom of movement, that is effected by the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London, acting through the controls exercised at the contraband control bases, such as Kirkwall, the Downs, and Gibraltar. The navicert system is simply a method whereby delays of the kind referred to in the Aide-Mémoire under reply can be obviated, because it enables shippers to ascertain before shipment whether their consignments will be regarded as objectionable or not by the contraband controls. The consignments of shippers who do not avail themselves of this facility before shipment can only be investigated after they arrive at the control base, with consequent delay not only to the particular shipment, but to all other [Page 17] consignments in the same ship, even though these last have been navicerted and therefore call for no further investigation. The navicert system therefore is one which works for the maximum convenience of all concerned. American shippers, of course, may ship without navicerts direct to any port, but, if they do so, delays and refusals are inevitable at the contraband control bases.

The Aide-Mémoire produces as evidence of discrimination between Italian and American ships figures showing that, whereas American ships have been delayed at Gibraltar for periods varying from 9 to 19 days, Italian ships were delayed for only 4 days. The reason for this difference is the fact that the Italian Government and shipping lines have been availing themselves more and more of the navicert system and, in the case of non-navicerted consignments, of the “Black Diamond” guarantee. Thanks to the latter, cargoes in respect of which the control authorities may not be entirely satisfied, are allowed through the controls, and the ship carrying them released, on the condition that they are held back by the Shipping Company at the port of destination, until the order for release has been received from London. Italian ships therefore get quick clearance because they have availed themselves of facilities also open to American ships.

As all navicerted consignments have been investigated before they are loaded at an American port, it follows that if a ship carries a completely navicerted cargo, the latter normally requires no further investigation on its arrival in the Contraband Control Base, and such a ship will therefore be cleared with a minimum of delay. When any part of the cargo is not navicerted that part needs to be investigated, and a measure of delay is therefore inevitable. From the time when the contraband control authorities can first consider a ship whose cargo is not completely navicerted there will, in the absence of other arrangements, be in most cases a delay of from two to three weeks before the enquiries regarding its non-navicerted consignments can be completed and the ship released. This delay is inevitable in the case of mixed unnavicerted cargoes, and occurs whatever the nationality of the ship.

This is the delay of which complaint is made in the Aide-Mémoire, but it can be reduced, though in the absence of completely navicerted cargoes, not eliminated, in two ways:

The date on which a ship’s cargo is first considered by the Contraband Committee depends entirely on the date on which full information about it is available. If shipping companies produce advance copies of their manifests in time, the Committee is able to consider the cargo simultaneously with, or even before its arrival in the Control Base. In the case of 14 American ships detained at Gibraltar, which were considered by the Contraband Committee between early December and January 22nd, the manifest in respect of seven did not reach the Ministry of Economic Warfare until after [Page 18] the arrival of the vessel. In two cases it was received simultaneously with the arrival, and in only one case more than two days before arrival. To some extent this is no doubt due to the suspension of the Clipper service owing to bad weather last month. Nevertheless, one reason for the shorter detention of Italian ships at Gibraltar has been that the Italian Lines have arranged that, in every case where air mail information would not reach the Ministry a week before the arrival of the ship at Gibraltar, their agents cable to London entire cargo lists from ports of loading in North and South America.
A second method is the provision of a holdback or Black Diamond guarantee by the shipping companies. Only in the most exceptional cases are these refused. The vast majority of the Italian vessels are guaranteed in this way either before or simultaneously with their arrival at Gibraltar. Italian companies have inserted in their Bills of Lading a clause protecting them from consignees in such cases. These facts, and the fact that some Italian ships carry bulk cargoes, which is hardly ever the case with American ships, are the reasons for the speedier passage of Italian ships. There has, in fact, been no discrimination against United States ships in favour of Italian or other ships at Gibraltar, and His Majesty’s Government instruct me to deny emphatically that there has been any discrimination.

In the list of nine American vessels reported to have been detained by the British Contraband Control, which was attached to the Aide-Mémoire, it is noticed that no less than eight belonged to the American Export Line. This Embassy has now had an opportunity of speaking to a representative of the American Export Line. He did not appear previously to have understood the working of the navicert system, or to have appreciated the facilities which, if fully employed, it could provide for his company. His Majesty’s Government hope, therefore, that the delays in dealing with the vessels of this company will be greatly reduced through its making fuller use of these facilities.

His Majesty’s Government recognise that some of the American Shipping Lines may not at first have fully understood the nature of the navicert system, but believe that a better understanding is now general among them, and they are confident that, if the system thus devised for the convenience of shippers were used by all American ships in the way in which it is being increasingly used by some and by ships belonging to other nations, the delays arising out of the contraband control will be very substantially reduced, and any appearance of discrimination between American and other neutral ships removed. His Majesty’s Government are doing everything in their power to expedite the clearance of ships at Gibraltar, as at the other control bases, not only because they want to place neutral ships at the smallest possible inconvenience, but because delays involve great congestion and other difficulties at Gibraltar [Page 19] itself. They believe that by these means the situation described in the Aide-Mémoire under reply will speedily disappear.

  1. Handed by the British Ambassador to the Under Secretary of State, February 9, 1940.