‘Nobody Else Ever Did This’: Cunningham and Destroyer Command

Lord Cunningham as First Sea Lord.

In a recent CIMSEC podcast on the subject of leadership Professor Andrew Lambert of King’s College London discusses the career of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham:

He was so determined not to be a junior officer on somebody else’s ship that when in his very early twenties he was given command of a very small torpedo boat he made sure that he was the best torpedo boat commander in the Navy so no flotilla commander would release him back into a big ship. He then moved on destroyer command, and he managed to hold one destroyer command for four years which was absolutely unprecedented. He did not serve on a big ship under another captain from his early twenties until he was the captain of the big ship. Nobody else ever did this. Nobody. But Cunningham got away with it because he was that good.

Cunningham was not in his ‘very early twenties’ when he was given command of T.B. 14 in May 1908: He was 25 (four months and six days to be exact). The reference to a four year long destroyer command is incorrect in a number of respects. It was not ‘absolutely unprecedented’ as a cursory glance at an October 1915 Navy List and service records show. Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Mackworth commanded the destroyer Ferret from October 1911 to March 1916 as a Lieutenant-Commander and Commander for five years and five months. Captain William B. Mackenzie (a) commanded the Bulldog as a Lieutenant-Commander from November 1911 to July 1916 for four years eight months. I saw several more just under the four year mark and I gave up less than a quarter of the way through the list of ships.

Of course, however, Cunningham did not just command the same destroyer for four years. He commanded the vessel in question, Scorpion, for just under seven years (2,517 days according to his service record).

Now we come to Professor Lambert’s assertion that ‘nobody else’ avoided serving under another captain at sea until they themselves became the captain (we have already eliminated the lower boundary of ‘very early twenties’). Now, to be clear, my research ends by and large at 1919 and anything beyond that is what I have picked up along the way. So I had to rack my brain for destroyer officers. The only only I could think of offhand was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Tovey, who distinguished himself in command of the destroyer Onslow at Jutland. Cunningham last served under another captain in 1908 in the armoured cruiser Suffolk and his first command of a big ship was Calcutta in 1926. Tovey left the Amphion in 1914. Whilst he spent considerably more time ashore on account of appointments at the Admiralty he too would never serve under another captain again. He took command of the Rodney in 1932. Their periods between serving in a big ship and commanding a big ship are remarkably similar:

  • Cunningham: 18 years 13 days.
  • Tovey: 17 years eight months five days.

To sum up:

  • Cunningham was not in his ‘very early twenties’ when he was given his first command.
  • He did not hold one destroyer command for four years.
  • Holding a destroyer command for four years was not ‘absolutely unprecedented’.
  • ‘Nobody else’ managed to leave the big navy and not return to it until they were in command simply is not true.

Apparently pointing these errors out constitutes ‘manufactured outrage’. The reader can decide whether that is a fair accusation.


Sources

Cunningham service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/47/82.
Mackenzie service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/45/248.
Mackworth service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/45/53.
Tovey service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/49/257.

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