‘The worst Golfer in England’

NPG x82543; Sir John Donald Kelly copy by Elliott & Fry
Sir John D. Kelly in the 1920s.

In August 1933 Captain Thomas H. Binney gave up command of H.M.S. Hood in the Home Fleet. His immediate superior, Rear-Admiral William M. James, commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron, wrote of him, ‘I have used the highest marking throughout, because I do think that Captain Binney is an exceptional officer.’ He then went on to go into detail about Binney’s success in command of the Hood in the wake of the Invergordon Mutiny.

Then the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet passed judgement. We have already seen how blistering Sir John D. Kelly could be in writing about his subordinates. In this instance he was by and large positive, yet still couldn’t resist some amusing observations and also a back-handed compliment at Rear-Admiral James:

Though I have the highest opinion of Captain Binney, I should not have marked him quite so superlatively throughout.

Exuberance is, however, one of the pleasant idiosyncracies of his reporting officer.

A first-rate Captain of a ship. His leadership had made a vast difference in the Ship. Though there was a lot of back-lash to make up, she has paid-off a thoroughly efficient fighting unit of my Fleet. On account of the back-lash aforesaid, I do not consider that HOOD reached the pinnacle that she should have in a further six months under his Command.

A delightfully loyal, most thorough and most reliable Officer.

He is active and young for his years, though I believe him to be the worst Golfer in England.

His sense of the ridiculous is not readily apparent but, may be, it is latent in him.

I recommend him most strongly for promotion to and employment as a Rear-Admiral, and think he is likely to go far in the higher Ranks.


H.M.S. Inflexible

H.M.S. Inflexible.

Whilst scouring my research material for data on sail drill competition in the Mediterranean (which I eventually found, thankfully) I came across the following description of the interior of the battleship Inflexible in a volume supposedly written by the royal princes Albert Victor and George (later King George V). It is dated 30 May 1882, and therefore pre-dates Inflexible’s participation in the bombardment of Alexandria less than two months later. The Captain Fisher referred to is, of course, ‘Jacky’ Fisher, later Lord Fisher. Fisher was allegedly criticised for the emphasis on preparation for battle illustrated here, and encouraged to excel in the fleet sail drill. As the photo of Inflexible makes clear, she was a ship torn between the past and future: a turret ship with rigged for sail. The following short account may prove of interest.

At 10 A.M. some of the Bacchante’s officers went at Captain Fisher’s invitation to see the Inflexible. He himself kindly explained everything. In the fore cabin we saw the large diagrams of the ship, and how each half of the ship is ‘double against the other,’ and how each fitting besides is in duplicate.

There are 6,000 tallies in the ship and everything is labelled: everything below is coloured red or green, for the port or starboard side, so that a man can never lose his way amid all the intricacies of the internal fittings, and can tell at once if he is going forward or aft. The  compartments, too, are all numbered, and not marked with letters of the alphabet, so that you can tell at once how far distant you are from either end of the ship. Her stability is far better than that of the Duilio or Dandolo, or any of the similar French ships. Then we went round the ship; the electric light reflected below has the same effect as sunlight coming in through large ports in a ship’s side: we went into the turret and saw the guns raised, run out and in, and loaded by hydraulic gear. Captain Fisher explained how it was almost impossible for any accident to occur in any way whatever, on account of the system of double checks, so that it would almost require a regular plot to put all wrong.

More on Room 40

NPG x168073; Sir (William) Reginald Hall by Walter Stoneman
Rear-Admiral ‘Blinker’ Hall.

I have written before about some of the bad history surrounding Room 40, and, now, another instance. In an article on the famed Zimmermann Telegram of 1917 BBC News reporter Gordon Corera writes, ‘On the morning of 17 January 1917, Nigel de Grey walked into his boss’s office in Room 40 of the Admiralty, home of the British code-breakers.’

Corera was referring to Rear-Admiral W. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, Director of the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty War Staff (pictured). In that one sentence, however, he has made a number of errors.

  1. Hall was not de Grey’s boss. As the latter himself admitted, technically his boss at the time was Sir J. Alfred Ewing, the Director of Naval Education.
  2. Hall’s office was not in 40 O.B., which was on the first floor of the Old Building of the Admiralty complex. Using the Admiralty Telephone Exchange List for May 1917 we see that his office at the time was in 39A (where it had been since he took up the post in 1914) on the ground floor of Block I , later renamed West Block. Some time between May 1917 and February 1918 Hall moved into 39 West Block, a much larger room.
  3. De Grey is hardly likely to have just ‘walked’ into Hall’s office. Corera quotes only part of his recollection in his article, but de Grey went on, ‘I was young and excited and ran all the way to his [Hall’s] room’, which makes far more sense if the office was a whole block away, rather than in the suite of rooms the code-breaking team occupied in and near 40 O.B.

As errors go, it is difficult to see how they can have originated from the existing literature, poor as it is. So come on, BBC News: up your game, please.


Admiralty Telephone Exchange List. Admiralty Library, Portsmouth.
Batey, Mavis. Dilly: The Man who Broke Enigmas (London, 2009).


Dudley North

NPG x74723; Sir Dudley Burton Napier North by Bassano
Admiral Sir Dudley B. R. North.

For my latest article I am researching those officers who applied to qualify in War Staff duties in 1912. One of these officers (of whom there were a greater number than one might suspect according to the current literature on the subject) was Lieutenant Dudley B. R. North (1881 – 1961). Reading through his service record of confidential reports in ADM 196/91 at The National Archives, one immediately notices that a whole page is taken up by one typescript piece of paper containing one report. This covers the period 1932 to 1933, when North served as Chief of Staff to Admiral Sir John Kelly, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet.

If one were to believe Peter Gretton’s disingenuous entry on North in the [Oxford] Dictionary of National Biography, ‘There his tact and courtesy combined well with the unconventional attitude of Kelly’. However, Kelly’s report on North of 1933 paints a very different picture. It can only be called ‘harsh but fair’. It is to be wondered, however, that his reasonable advice was not taken at the end of the report. Rather than be given a seagoing command to prove his worth he remained on shore for over a year, before being given command of the Royal Yachts for nearly five years. If those in authority had never intended seriously employing him afloat again then he should have been retired on promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1936.

In November 1939, apparently thanks to the influence of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, he was appointed Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic, where in 1940 he was made a scapegoat for the failure of an Anglo-Free French assault on Dakar following the passage of a Vichy French cruiser force through his command. North was later officially absolved of any blame. Given Kelly’s report below, however, one can only conclude North should never been near a seagoing command, in which case he could not have been unfairly blamed.

He is certainly not brainy: is slow in the up-take and poor on paper. In most cases his Minutes are the merest platitudes. He is very long-winded which, to one of an impatient disposition, is sometimes irritating.

Hyper-critical rather than constructive and, in mind, stolid rather than imaginative. Many of his ideas are old-fashioned, and, though he has not exhibited this to me, I know him to be strongly opinionated, if not pig-headed. He has an excellent conceit of his own abilities, the cause of which is not apparent.

He had been much too long away from the Fleet, and suffered accordingly. Though he is most popular among his contemporaries, he has an astoundingly restricted acquaintance of Officers junior to him. This may be due to the above reason or to the fact that ‘people’ or his juniors, as such, do not interest him.

‘Chief of Staff’ is, definitely, not his metier; not, at any rate, my Chief of Staff, for he can put very little into the pot that I cannot put there, and in greater measure. He has, perforce, acted largely as a voice-pipe between my Staff Officers and myself, and as the voice-pipe was liable to become choked with extraneous matter, I have frequently been impelled to go, surreptitiously – so as not to hurt his feeling – direct to the mouthpiece, in order to arrive at exact information, and in a concise form.

Though I would hesitate to describe him as a weak character, he is certainly neither a strong nor a forceful one.

Socially, he can be quite amusing, but he cannot be depended upon to make himself pleasant as, on occasions, he sits through a party and scarcely ‘utters’.

On the other hand, he has many good qualities. His manners are pleasant and easy: he is a gentleman. He can be amusing. He is very ambitious. He has a good knowledge of Tactics. He is very diligent and gives of his best. I should judge him to be much liked by the Staff under him.

I feel very strongly that, having been promoted to Rear Admiral on the recommendation of several of his senior Officers, he should be tested in a Sea Command – not as an Admiral Superintendent, for which, in my opinion, he is not fitted – and, dependent on his success, promoted to Vice-Admiral. As I may be entirely wrong in my judgement of him – otherwise than as my own Chief of Staff – I feel that he should be given a hearing in another Court.

It will be remembered, moreover, that the post of Chief of Staff is by no means ever man’s ‘meat’. If I may be allowed a reference to myself: though I may or may not have succeeded reasonably in commanding a Squadron or Fleet, there is no doubt whatever in my mind that I should have an execrable Chief of Staff: a fact that I recognised so well, some years ago, when offered tentatively a similar post, that I refused it.

Finally, I am entirely convinced that he does not possess the qualities for the highest Commands, and should assess him as being what the present First Sea Lord described as ‘a One-job-man’.