This morning I stumbled across a 7 September 1915 letter from Sir George A. Callaghan (Commander-in-Chief at the Nore) to Sir Frederick T. Hamilton (Second Sea Lord). In it Callaghan warns that perhaps a Lieutenant-Commander St. John should not have been given command of the Chatham Detention Quarters on account of his age (62). He did however recommend St. John being given the rank of Acting Commander and given charge of a new camp of huts. He goes on:
St. John was my lot in Britannia & retired 37 years ago! He is an excellent chap & it would soothe his feelings at being done out of his Detention Command if he was made Acting Commander.
The officer in question, the gloriously named William Charles St. Andrew St. John, had retired from the Navy on 4 July 1877, having only been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 30 January of that year. At this point he had been retired almost four times as long as he had originally been in the Navy (ten years)!
Evidently Callaghan thought St. John was up to the job despite his long absence from the Naval Service, and his thoughtfulness shines through in this letter to Hamilton, who was responsible for appointments. Suffice it to say St. John was given his Acting Rank.
In his unpublished memoirs Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver mentioned a yarn from his early days afloat: ‘Achilles [an ironclad] paid off soon after I went to Sea, after years in commission, she had killed a man for every month she had been in commission by accidents aloft.’ This is a pretty wild claim, and fortunately one that does not appear to have been repeated elsewhere. Part of my first book (on the Royal Navy of the late 19th century) will examine how dangerous the twilight of the age of sail was, and Oliver’s statement is a good place to begin.
Possibly the most definitive record of numbers killed from accidents aloft would be the ship’s logs, which will presumably be at The National Archives, Kew. These are voluminous tomes however, and require a lot of effort to both photograph and then peruse. Casualty returns would have once been made, but I do not know whether these still exist. There are also a series of Statistical Reports (also rendered as Returns) on the Health of the Navy, which became an annual publication in 1856, which were conveniently printed by Parliament. They are a very handy tool, but are sometimes vague, depending on the year. Summaries are given for each specific station and two arbitrary statistical ‘stations’ called the ‘Home Station’ (incorporating all the Home Ports and Channel Squadron) and the ‘Irregular Force’, comprising ships on detached service or in transit.
Using the 1878 Statistical Report and an 1881 Navy List we can see Achilles was commissioned on 17 May 1877 at Devonport, and was recommissioned on 1 September 1880. Oliver, according to his service record, had gone to sea in the Agincourt on 23 July that year, so we know that he was telling the truth when he says Achilles was paid off shortly after he left H.M.S. Britannia. Looking at the various Reports we find that in 1877 Achilles suffered four deaths by violence (which incorporated drownings and falls from aloft), and six in 1878. There were nine deaths in total aboard the ship in 1879 but only four deaths in the whole Mediterranean Squadron on account of falls aloft, so the number of deaths in Achilles from aloft must be four or less. In 1880 there were five deaths in the ship, but for some reason these are not divided by old or new commission, which is normally the case. The ship was therefore served a 39 and a half months’ long commission, but at the very most could have only suffered 21 deaths (and likely several fewer, and how many of those were on account of work aloft one can only guess).
One conclusion is clear – Oliver’s claim that that Achilles had killed a man aloft for every month of her commission is clearly untrue. In his defence, however, he was writing over 60 years after the fact (and lived until he was 100).
As some will have no doubt gathered, I’ve just returned from a trip to California to consult the papers of Arthur J. Marder. One of the first items I looked at in my three and half days in the archive was a letter from Admiral Sir Lionel G. Preston, who served as Director of Minesweeping at the Admiralty in the First World War. The letter was dated 9 May 1953, and was addressed to long-time Marder correspondent Admiral Sir William M. ‘Bubbles’ James, who was in charge of N.I.D. 25, or ‘Room 40’, from 1917 onwards. Preston’s letter deals mainly with various tricks designed to fool the Germans, including publishing fake pamphlets showing mine-swept channels and Admiral Sir W. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the then Director of Naval Intelligence, selling them to enemy agents.
The most interesting aspect of Preston’s letter to me, however, is the following sentence:
Blinker allowed me to follow the doings of all minelayer Captains & so to judge their characteristics.
This, if true, is an interesting insight, although to what extent Preston or Hall could get into the minds of German minelaying captains is one for other historians to dwell upon perhaps.
Earlier in the letter Preston stated that he had interviewed the captain of U.C.44, Kurt Tebbenjohanns, who was captured when his minelaying submarine was sunk off Waterford on 4 August 1917. If he did interview Tebbenjohanns, was he the man responsible for the official interview, a transcript of which is in ADM 116/1513?
At any rate, Preston appears to have been the source for the claim made by James in his biography of Hall (The Eyes of the Navy, 116) that UC.44 was tricked onto an unswept German minefield, writing:
Our Q code had become compromised. I suggested we left some mined entrance left uncleared, knowing the regularity with which the ‘U’ boat returned to his beat.
Waterford was chosen, & DNI informed Luigi [Sir Lewis ‘Luigi’ Bayly] (C in C Queenstown) who agreed to secretly closing the port for at least a fortnight from the date the mines were laid.
Robert Grant has called this version (which was repeated by Beesly in Room 40, 265) into doubt, suggesting that U.C.44 was sunk by one of her own mines (Grant, U-Boat Hunters, 54-55). As Preston himself admitted in his letter to James, ‘I wish I could enlarge but time has blotted most of the names’.
Note: Quite why James gave the actual letter to Marder rather than a copy is a mystery to me. I would not give any of my correspondence away!