Lionel Preston and Minelayers

NPG x124028; Sir Lionel George Preston; Emily Elizabeth (nÈe Bryant), Lady Preston by Bassano
Lionel Preston in 1925.

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!

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Embed from Getty Images

In his influential book Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Dr. Nicholas Lambert refers (p. 245) to a November 1911 ‘secret rendezvous at Plymouth Dockyard’ between retired Lord Fisher, a former First Sea Lord, and Winston Churchill, the new First Lord of the Admiralty. In my article on Fisher and Churchill’s 1911 correspondence (Harley, ‘“It’s a Case of All or None”: “Jacky” Fisher’s Advice to Winston Churchill, 1911’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 102:2, 186), I described Lambert’s choice of words as ‘a touch melodramatic’, as both were present at the launch of the battleship Centurion at Devonport Dockyard on 18 November. Arthur Marder rightly described the meetings as secret insomuch as they ‘did not appear in the newspapers’ (Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, II, 401).

In Lambert’s defence, last year (after several unsuccessful attempts) I was able to consult the visitors’ book of H.M.S. Enchantress, the Board of Admiralty’s yacht. Fisher’s name does not appear in it for that weekend, although this is by no means proof of any kind of conspiracy to suppress knowledge of any meeting which may or may not have taken place on board.

Quite why any secret meeting would need to take place is another question. As Lambert states, and I illustrate quite clearly in my article, Fisher and Churchill were corresponding nearly every day, and had spent a weekend together only a few weeks previously. The final nail in the coffin of any notion of a ‘secret rendezvous’, however, is the above photograph of the two apparently arriving at the launch of Centurion, which I only came across last week (despite its caption, it has been lazily dated by Getty Images to 1 January 1911).  From left to right are George Lambert, Civil Lord of the Admiralty (a stalwart supporter of Fisher); Lord Fisher; Winston Churchill; Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, Churchill’s Private Secretary (whose prematurely white hair earned him the name of ‘the Silver King’). If this is a secret rendezvous then I shudder to think what a non-secret one would look like.

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.

Sources

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