The Historical Section’s New Clothes

Peter Kemp, O.B.E.

Followers on Twitter may know that I do not have much time for the late Lieutenant-Commander Peter Kemp, onetime head of the Naval Historical Branch. In a 1966 article entitled ‘War Studies’ for the RUSI Journal he referred to the Historical Section of the Naval Staff which had been formally created after the First World War. Kemp wrote:

As a result of pressure from the Secretariat, the Section was reduced to two officers, was to be constituted only on a temporary basis, and was to be dissolved as soon as a Staff History of the last war was completed. The two officers concerned were not to be paid salaries, but would be employed on ‘piece rates,’ a small sum (£50) to be  given them on the completion of each section of the war history. This iniquitous arrangement continued until 1927 when, one day, the First Sea Lord (Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty) happened to meet one of the two officers of the Section in an Admiralty corridor and remarked on his ragged clothes. The whole sordid story was laid bare, and Lord Beatty, in addition to lending the officer concerned enough money to pay his debts and buy a new suit of clothes, directed such a blast at the Admiralty Secretariat that the Historical Section was at once put on a more permanent and properly salaried status. ‘It is deplorable,’ wrote Lord Beatty, ‘that a great Government Department should treat two such valuable officers in such a niggardly fashion . . .I shall take the matter up with the Chancellor of the
Exchequer. It seems to me that professional and technical history is of the greatest importance and I personally see no finality to this work.’

Like many a historian before and since Kemp declined to give a source for an explosive claim, which falls apart on a number of levels. The idea that Beatty would personally appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for salaries or allowances is utterly ludicrous. For matters affecting staffing the Board would have to approve the Admiralty Secretariat writing to the Treasury Secretariat for additional funding to be made available. The notion that Beatty, a sailor and not a politician, would talk to the Chancellor and directly obtain funds is simply wrong.

And, of course, it can not and is not true. The Historical Section of the Naval Staff first appears in the Navy Estimates in 1921. That year it had five ‘Temporary Assistants’ earning £400 to 600 a year. In 1922 the number of staff of the Section rose to six: a Commander on £1,103 a year, a Lieutenant-Commander on £866, and four Temporary Assistants on £350 to £500 a year. In 1923 the number remained the same, except the sums changed. The Commander was now retired and obtained £400 in addition to his retired pay. The Lieutenant-Commander earned £3 less, and the four Temporary Assistants were now given £315 to £450 per annum. In 1924 the number of Temporary Assistants was reduced to three at the same range of salaries. The pay of the Commander was increased to £500 and that of the Lieutenant-Commander decreased by another by a tiny amount again, this time to £861. 1925 saw the strength of the Section remain at five, although the pay of the Lieutenant-Commander was yet again reduced, to £823 this time. In 1926 the lower limit of pay of the Temporary Assistants was raised from £315 to £360, and our long-suffering Lieutenant-Commander’s pay sank to £795. In 1927 it was lowered to £792, but otherwise the staffing and pay of the Section remained exactly the same.

Under the Training and Staff Duties Division in the Estimates there was ‘Provision for preparation of Monographs, &c., for the Staff College.’ The sums provided in the Estimates were not inconsiderable: 1923, £700; 1924, £1,200; 1925, £1,800; 1926, £1,000; 1927, £600; 1928, £150. This amounts to £5,300 over five years, in addition to the salaries of the staff of the Historical Section.

The amount of money involved casts doubt on Kemp’s story of a man in rags wandering the Admiralty accepting alms from the professional head of the Royal Navy. The records at The National Archives, of course, may tell a different story, but the Navy Estimates strongly suggest that Kemp’s tale is a fantasy.

Fact Checking

I was flicking through volume 1 of Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the other day and stumbled across a paragraph which alerted my sixth sense for bullshit. Referring to ‘Jacky’ Fisher’s famous ‘Fishpond’ Marder wrote (p. 87):

Two things are beyond dispute. One is that the fear of reprisal haunted those that were not in the Fishpond. Admiral H. M. Edwards remembers how ‘not being in the Fishpond, and averse to running the risk of incurring his displeasure—in case he didn’t like the cut of my jib—I took the greatest care if I spotted him in one of the Admiralty corridors of slipping down another.’

Entertaining stuff. The source is a letter from 2 June 1948. This is exactly the sort of gossip I hoped to find when I flew all the way to California to consult Marder’s papers. However, there was hardly anything from before the 1950s and I did not find this letter. But what of the claim? ‘Admiral H. M. Edwards’ is Rear-Admiral Herbert MacI. Edwards. As far as the author can tell (consulting his service record in ADM 196/44/119) he never served at the Admiralty whilst Fisher was First Sea Lord. Moreover, from 1901 to 1907 he served as Flag Lieutenant to Fisher’s ally Sir Arthur K. Wilson, nearly six years, for which he was specially promoted Commander in 1907. He then went on to serve as head of the signal school at Chatham and then Portsmouth as Superintendent of Signal Schools.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Edwards would be summoned to the Admiralty for meetings as in the latter role he was the Admiralty’s de facto signalling specialist. It beggars belief that Fisher, as the man responsible for the fighting efficiency of the fleet, would have had nothing to do with Edwards and that Edwards, with a friend in Wilson, would have had anything to fear.

As to the corridors claim, contrary to the popular belief conveyed by bad historians of Room 40 that the Admiralty was some sort of sprawling warren, with the exception of the wings of the Old Building (the quadrangle facing Whitehall) the rest of the site was comprised of long, broad corridors. The only way Edwards would be able to slip down another corridor is by heading to the lavatory.

Having at the very least cast doubt on Edwards’ claims, one has to ask what would make such a man conjure up such a bizarre story?

‘A Mere Barony’: More Duff History

Rosslyn_Erskine_Wemyss,_Baron_Wester_Wemyss_by_Sir_William_OrpenIn a letter to the Times of 9 November 2016, by and large repeated in a letter to the Telegraph on 2 November 2018, Lord Lexden, the historian of the Conservative Party, wrote:

Sir, When we fall silent at 11am on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, we should spare a thought for Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Lloyd George instructed Wemyss, his representative at Allied HQ in France, to ensure that the armistice took effect at 2.30pm. The prime minister planned to announce it triumphantly in the House of Commons. Wemyss defied him, telephoning George V to fix the eleventh hour for the cessation of hostilities.

A furious Lloyd George withheld the £100,000 grant awarded to other service chiefs, and while they received earldoms he got a mere barony.

Quite apart from the crassness of asking us to spare a thought for Wemyss when our thoughts ought to be elsewhere at such an important hour, Lord Lexden’s final paragraph is completely incorrect. The other service chiefs at the time of the Armistice were Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Frederick Sykes, Chief of Air Staff, who was succeeded in early 1919 by Sir Hugh Trenchard. In August of that year Parliament granted sums of money to leading naval, military and air officers of the War. The largest sums were given to the Commander-in-Chiefs of the British Expeditionary Force and Grand Fleet, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir David Beatty. Each received £100,000 apiece, and also earldoms. No service chief received £100,000. Wilson and Trenchard each received £10,000 each, and were given baronetcies in December 1919, not earldoms. Sykes received a knighthood and no grant and no title. Whilst Wemyss may have felt justly slighted at not receiving a grant, his ‘mere barony’ (the same dignity Lexden holds), conferred a month before Wilson and Trenchard were given their baronetcies, and special promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in November 1919, means he is far less deserving of our thoughts than Lexden would have us believe.


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 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 The Hon. 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.