Two of a Kind

NPG x44457; Sir George Edwin Patey by Walter Stoneman
Admiral Patey. Image: NPG.

On 2 January 1909 two Captains in the Royal Navy were promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral. This was not particularly unusual, as occasionally more than one officer was promoted at the same time. What was unusual was that the two officers in question, George E. Patey and Julian C. A. Wilkinson, had both been born on 24 February 1859. They both entered the Royal Navy in January, 1872, and then the climb up the greasy pole began. Patey was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 10 August 1881, while Wilkinson was promoted on 29 June 1883. Patey specialised as a gunnery officer, while Wilkinson remained a line officer. Promotion to Commander and Captain was solely by selection. Patey’s promotion to Commander came on 31 December 1894, and Wilkinson followed exactly a year later. Both officers were promoted to the rank of Captain on 1 January 1900. Thereafter, provided they had their sea time in and remained fit, both men were guaranteed their flag, which was governed strictly by seniority. Despite the large number of promotions to flag rank which marked this era (there were 21 in 1908 and 14 in 1909) both men managed to be promoted to Rear-Admiral on the same day. One would hope both officers went out and placed large sums of money on a horse the day they learned of their promotions.

Patey went on to retire as an Admiral having commanded the Australian Fleet and the North America and West Indies Station, dying in 1935. Wilkinson, whose health had never been great, retired in 1911 and died in 1917.

Sir Walter Cowan

NPG x65764; Sir Walter Henry Cowan, 1st Bt by Walter StonemanAdmiral Sir Walter H. Cowan, Bt., K.C.B., was one of the more irascible characters to rise to flag rank in the Royal Navy. His memoirs, at the National Maritime Museum, are a delight to read: the man was seemingly always hunting or trying to go on operations with the army. One has to wonder why he, the son of an army officer, had not joined the Army in the first place.

Placed on the retired list in 1931, at the outbreak of the Second World War he first served in the Navy with the rank of Commander, and then managed to get himself attached to the Commandos formed by Roger Keyes, and sent to the Middle East. After the disbandment of the Commandos there he attached himself to an Indian cavalry brigade, and was caught up in the capture of Bir Hakeim in May 1942. For the record at this point he was just shy of his seventy-first birthday. He related what happened next in a letter to Keyes:

‘Just to account for myself to you. We were holding with 500 men an unprepared position-had come the day before. They attacked us with many tanks and a whole
Division, and the first wave went clean through and everyone near me was either knocked over or captured. I got behind an empty Bren gun carrier and they missed me.

‘After a lull the second wave came on. I’d got into the carrier. An armoured car
stopped about 40 yards off and four men got out and came at me, I let drive at them with my revolver and one dropped in front. The others ran back behind their A.C. Then the captain of it shouted and gesticulated that I should put my hands up, but this I could not do, so he fired a burst at me and missed. He again hailed me and got no response so fired another burst and again missed. I didn’t think he could, as I wasn’t trying to take cover; just stood with my revolver hanging down empty, so he had every chance and was welcome to it: but I felt after missing me twice that was enough and I got out of the carrier and pointed to my empty pistol and walked up to and asked him what he wanted. He motioned me to get up on to his car and that was the end, and I grieve that it’s all over. Have been so very happy all this time since you launched me, and I feel as things went that you pay not think the worse of me.’

Champagne for Lunch

dpOn 13 February 1878 a British squadron of ironclads proceeded up the Dardanelles Straits to Constantinople during the Russo-Turkish War. This was one of those rare moments during the so-called Pax Britannica when the battleships of the Royal Navy came close to opening fire. On that winter’s day, with a blizzard blowing, and visibility practically nil, all hands were at general quarters, the squadron inched its way up the straits. On the bridge of the ironclad Achilles stood Captain Sir William N. W. Hewett, a hero of the Crimean War, knight of the Bath, and recipient of the Victoria Cross. With him stood three midshipmen, cowering in the cold, one of whom was George A. Ballard, who came to prominence as a war planner in the years leading up to the First World War. At the time Ballard was just 15 years old. He later recalled:

We had no shelter there and looked so miserably frozen that Hewett laughed and sent us down to lunch in his cabin with orders to the steward to give us champagne.

With the exception of the grounding of the flagship Alexandra on account of the atrocious visibility, the passage of the fleet passed without incident, and the Turkish forts, which were to prove so troublesome a generation later, did not open fire. And the young Ballard had a good lunch! The author heartily approves of champagne as a curative for cold.

Incidentally, if anyone is interested in the orders for the squadron which transited the straits, they are reproduced in the author’s ‘A Distinct Point in Modern Naval Tactics’ in The Mariner’s Mirror.

Room 40

room-40In the BBC’s ‘Battle of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ documentary, televised earlier this year, Dan Snow tells the viewer:

In a room here in the Admiralty that was so secret some in the Naval hierarchy couldn’t even work out where it was, a group of code breakers was working on intercepted German messages.

Great story, you say! The inspiration for this state of affairs, incredible if true, seems to have been a parody called Alice in I.D. 25 (the section of the Naval Intelligence Division which Room 40 was part of by War’s end). ‘Alice started to look for Room 48. Room 49 was quite close, but none of the other numbers appeared to have anything to do with one another’. Alice must have been quite thick, as rooms in the Old Building (now known as the Ripley Building) were numbered strictly in a clockwise manner. Room 48 was 13 feet away from Room 49, on the same stretch of corridor. Rooms in the other Admiralty blocks, I, II, III (renamed North, South and West in 1917) were numbered anti-clockwise. Entries in the Admiralty Telephone Directory (see Room 40’s entry in the 1915 phone book below: Hope was the naval head of Room 40 till 1917) show clearly which block a room was in next to its number. The floor plans of the Admiralty let a historian know exactly where the rooms were in relation to each other. One thing is abundantly clear: If you were one of the privileged people to know of the existence of the Royal Navy’s codebreaking effort, you would know where the room was.


Lest anyone think that Room 40 was difficult to get to, it is a little over 40 feet down the corridor from the Old Board Room (Room 36) in which Snow and Admiral Lord West are shown talking in the documentary. All Snow had to do to get there was turn left. So Dan, for your next foray into naval history, please get some decent researchers, and don’t repeat tired old myths.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

german-navyI happened to be looking through The National Archives website to try and find their page on ‘Surgeons at Sea’ the other evening, and considered the logical place to begin would be their list of online collections. One might be surprised to see that to illustrate ‘Royal Naval Air Service Officers’ Records’, a photograph of ratings aboard ship is used. This anachronism is nothing, however, compared to that used for ‘Royal Naval Air Service ratings’, which would appear to be of two officers of the German Imperial Navy! One would hope that The National Archives would have access to better, and more appropriate, photographs.

updateUpdate, 07/12/16: Blogging makes a difference. As a direct result of this post, the images have become somewhat less inappropriate.

‘The Oldest Naval Officer Afloat’

Photo: Merseyside Roll of Honour.

I was looking through an admiral’s service record, and my eye was caught by the record of another officer who was killed during the First World War. Given the age of the admiral in question, this had to be someone quite old. On closer inspection he was even older, and leads on to an interesting life.

Henry Thomas Gartside-Tipping was born in Dublin in 1848, the son of Gartside Gartside-Tipping of Rossferry, Co. Cavan, and entered the Royal Navy in September, 1860. He passed his Lieutenant’s examination in Seamanship in June 1867, managed to be appointed to the royal yacht Victoria and Albert (which carried with it automatic promotion) and was duly promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August 1870. While taking the short course in Gunnery in H.M.S. Cambridge, gunnery training ship at Plymouth, he was reported to be unable to perform manual labour on account of ‘heart disease’, and thereafter was appointed to relatively sedate posts: command of Dapper, tender to the Britannia at Dartmouth; Ganges, boys’ training ship. In July 1879 he became an Inspector of Life Boats with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He was placed on the Retired List for non-service in July 1884. He married, in December 1890, Mary Stuart Pilkington, of Southport.

At the outbreak of the First World War he returned to active duty, taking command of the yacht Aries in September 1914. In January 1915 he took command of the yacht Sanda and charge of Auxiliary Patrol Area XIV. He ceased command of the area on 29 May, but retained command of the Sanda, which was sunk by gunfire during an operation off the Belgian coast on 25 September. Gartside-Tipping, aged 67, was lost with his ship.

Vice-Admiral Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, mentioned Gartside-Tipping in his January 1916 despatches, claiming he was the ‘oldest naval officer afloat’. He wrote of him, ‘In spite of his advanced age, he rejoined, and with undemonstrative patriotism served at sea as a Lieutenant-Commander.’ Gartside-Tipping was not the oldest naval officer killed during the war, however. On 2 October 1918 Temporary Honorary Lieutenant Edwin Follett, D.S.C., R.N.V.R., borne on the books of Proserpine, was killed in Iraq, aged 75.

Tragically Gartside-Tipping’s widow, Mary, serving in France with the Women’s Emergency Corps, was shot and killed on 4 March 1917 by a deranged soldier.

A Disabled Admiral

Browning as a Rear-Admiral. Photo: Library of Congress.

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December), a quick post on a naval officer who, despite what might usually have been a career-ending injury, managed to rise to the top of his profession. Lieutenant Montague E. Browning, gunnery officer of the battleship Inflexible, had his left hand amputated following an accident on board ship on 15 August 1899. After being repeatedly found unfit he was reported fit for service on 21 January 1890, ‘having been fitted with an efficient mechanical substitute for his hand’. He returned to duty as gunnery officer of the cruiser Forth for the annual manoeuvres that Summer, and remained on the Active List for another 36 years, retiring as an Admiral in 1926, after holding command afloat during the First World War and serving as Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, afterwards. He died in Winchester on 4 November 1947, aged 84.

On a personal note, I spend most of my time caring for a father who has only one leg, so regrettably I have a little idea of some of the obstacles that people with disabilities face on a daily basis.


The National Archives, ADM 196/42/104.
The Times, 6 November 1947, 7.

One of our Records is Missing

tnapicAs some of you know I’ve been working on transcribing a First World War diary for some time, and am currently tidying up the text and filling in some gaps before a final push to get it published. One of the jobs is to make sure that every person mentioned has a little note explaining who they were: name, rank, years of death and birth. To that end, on my last visit to The National Archives at Kew I collected as many service records as possible. However, I’ve only just finished cataloguing them in the past week (on which more in due course), and have found quite a few glaring omissions, one of which I found just this morning.

One of the officers who needs a note is Commander Frederic Gerald Stuart Peile, who served as navigating officer, Commander (N), of the dreadnought battleship Emperor of India in the Grand Fleet from September 1914 to December 1915, in which capacity he is mentioned in the diary. Normally his service record in the ADM 196/4# series would be expected to have his date of death. So I plugged in Frederic Peile into my laptop search engine and nothing came up. ‘Bother’, thought I. I tend to always be in a rush at archives, so It is always possible that in my haste I may have missed a record or two. Just to be sure, though, I checked the The National Archive’s Discovery catalogue. There was no mention of his ADM 196/4# service record.

I therefore proceeded to the index in ADM 196/57. Peile is mentioned there. Plenty of his term mates from his 15 January 1895 entry to H.M.S. Britannia are listed in the relative section of ADM 196/46. So where is Peile? Was his page just missed when the records were microfilmed, or when they were digitised? Or was his entry trashed, as occasionally happens. Time to inquire of the Discovery team at Kew, who will hopefully supply answers, and also the record.