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’.

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