A Killer Ship?

Oliver during the Great War.

In his unpublished memoirs Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver mentioned a yarn from his early days afloat: ‘Achilles [an ironclad] paid off soon after I went to Sea, after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).


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!

Illness or Alcoholism?

In The Rules of the Game Andrew Gordon cites the example of Rear-Admiral Leicester C. Keppel as an example of the ‘opportunities for for action, adventure and sudden death available to personnel on remote stations, far away from the main fleets, in the middle years of Victoria’s reign’. He then cites Keppel’s entry in Who’s Who, which is certainly interesting. Gordon then goes on to write:

The details of this much skirmished officer’s later career become vague, suggesting that some recurring illness, or alcoholism, may have precluded further promotion; but greater (and less deserved) honours might have come his way had he had the good fortune to serve in safe, glamorous flagships rather than remote, treacherous backwaters.

So in the space of a few lines Gordon insinuates an officer might have been a drunk or an invalid, and damns all flagship officers as unworthy of any rewards.

If he’d actually bothered to study the career of Keppel, and understand the mechanics of promotion in the Royal Navy, a different picture emerges. Keppel received his promotion to Commander (at the relatively young age of 32) from his uncle, Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, in a haul down vacancy on the China Station. This system was notorious because Commanders-in-Chief could promote their relatives over the heads of dozens, if not hundreds, of their contemporaries, in the almost-certain knowledge that the Admiralty would confirm their selection (despite repeated attempts to abolish it, exceptions continued to be made as late as 1908, if not later). So much for undeserved honours.

As to Keppel’s later career, he held two appointments during the 1870s as a Commander: the first in the Coast Guard (an immediate reserve for the Navy as well as a coast-watching service) and then in the screw gunvessel Avon on the West Coast of Africa. His services there apparently merited his selection for promotion to the rank of Captain in 1880. But despite his uncle obtaining his promotion to Commander in 1869, his ten years spent in that rank meant that he could never rise any higher, contrary to Gordon’s claim. Keppel was placed on the retired list on reaching the age of 55 on 27 August 1892, as per the regulations. Promotion from Captain to Rear-Admiral was by seniority. When he retired there were still 29 Captains above him on the list. The next above him, Arthur K. Wilson, wasn’t promoted until 20 June 1895. Keppel’s career wasn’t a victim of illness or alcoholism, as Gordon would have it. If he was indeed a victim, then it was of the system as it then stood.

Sir Walter Cowan

NPG x65764; Sir Walter Henry Cowan, 1st Bt by Walter StonemanAdmiral Sir Walter H. Cowan, Bt., K.C.B., was one of the more irascible characters to rise to flag rank in the Royal Navy. His memoirs, at the National Maritime Museum, are a delight to read: the man was seemingly always hunting or trying to go on operations with the army. One has to wonder why he, the son of an army officer, had not joined the Army in the first place.

Placed on the retired list in 1931, at the outbreak of the Second World War he first served in the Navy with the rank of Commander, and then managed to get himself attached to the Commandos formed by Roger Keyes, and sent to the Middle East. After the disbandment of the Commandos there he attached himself to an Indian cavalry brigade, and was caught up in the capture of Bir Hakeim in May 1942. For the record at this point he was just shy of his seventy-first birthday. He related what happened next in a letter to Keyes:

‘Just to account for myself to you. We were holding with 500 men an unprepared position-had come the day before. They attacked us with many tanks and a whole
Division, and the first wave went clean through and everyone near me was either knocked over or captured. I got behind an empty Bren gun carrier and they missed me.

‘After a lull the second wave came on. I’d got into the carrier. An armoured car
stopped about 40 yards off and four men got out and came at me, I let drive at them with my revolver and one dropped in front. The others ran back behind their A.C. Then the captain of it shouted and gesticulated that I should put my hands up, but this I could not do, so he fired a burst at me and missed. He again hailed me and got no response so fired another burst and again missed. I didn’t think he could, as I wasn’t trying to take cover; just stood with my revolver hanging down empty, so he had every chance and was welcome to it: but I felt after missing me twice that was enough and I got out of the carrier and pointed to my empty pistol and walked up to and asked him what he wanted. He motioned me to get up on to his car and that was the end, and I grieve that it’s all over. Have been so very happy all this time since you launched me, and I feel as things went that you pay not think the worse of me.’

Room 40

room-40In the BBC’s ‘Battle of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ documentary, televised earlier this year, Dan Snow tells the viewer:

In a room here in the Admiralty that was so secret some in the Naval hierarchy couldn’t even work out where it was, a group of code breakers was working on intercepted German messages.

Great story, you say! The inspiration for this state of affairs, incredible if true, seems to have been a parody called Alice in I.D. 25 (the section of the Naval Intelligence Division which Room 40 was part of by War’s end). ‘Alice started to look for Room 48. Room 49 was quite close, but none of the other numbers appeared to have anything to do with one another’. Alice must have been quite thick, as rooms in the Old Building (now known as the Ripley Building) were numbered strictly in a clockwise manner. Room 48 was 13 feet away from Room 49, on the same stretch of corridor. Rooms in the other Admiralty blocks, I, II, III (renamed North, South and West in 1917) were numbered anti-clockwise. Entries in the Admiralty Telephone Directory (see Room 40’s entry in the 1915 phone book below: Hope was the naval head of Room 40 till 1917) show clearly which block a room was in next to its number. The floor plans of the Admiralty let a historian know exactly where the rooms were in relation to each other. One thing is abundantly clear: If you were one of the privileged people to know of the existence of the Royal Navy’s codebreaking effort, you would know where the room was.


Lest anyone think that Room 40 was difficult to get to, it is a little over 40 feet down the corridor from the Old Board Room (Room 36) in which Snow and Admiral Lord West are shown talking in the documentary. All Snow had to do to get there was turn left. So Dan, for your next foray into naval history, please get some decent researchers, and don’t repeat tired old myths.

Happy Birthday, Sir Winston

cjif4pxwkaagw2iOn this day in 1874 Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He twice served as First Lord of the Admiralty, from 1911 to 1915, and from 1939 to 1940, before going on to become one of the United Kingdom’s most famous and respected Prime Ministers. It is worth noting that in serving more than once as First Lord he was not unique, and not even in the matter of holding it under the banner of a different political party – George Goschen twice held the office, first as a Liberal under Gladstone and secondly as a Liberal Unionist under the Marquess of Salisbury.

When he was appointed First Lord, the political head of the Royal Navy, in October 1911, Churchill had to reorganise the rest of the Board of Admiralty and leadership of the Fleet to best suit his needs. In this endeavour he was assisted by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who had served as First Sea Lord, professional head of the Navy, from 1904 to 1910. In the last few months of 1911 Fisher poured forth advice on appointments, which until this year had received very little attention, and the correspondence had languished in companion volumes or archives, and no context whatsoever had been given to them.

To that end I wrote an article surveying Fisher’s recommendations to Churchill and the appointments actually made. The work was published in May this year in The Mariner’s Mirror, journal of the Society for Nautical Research. It can be read here.


Every so often in my research I come across items which are irrelevant to my books or articles in progress, but which I still want to share because they are just so interesting. Or there are little mysteries which I know I’ll never get to the bottom of, but someone else might want to investigate further. Also, when I’m going around archives I meet administrative brick walls and just want to vent my spleen. There will even be tales of my own incompetence. It’s conceited, I know, but someone might find these things of interest, especially those who have an interest in the Royal Navy of the late 19th and early 20th century, be it academic or otherwise.

Many of these anecdotes will already have been hinted at in the Twitter account of The Dreadnought Project, which may be found under the handle @NavyHistorian.