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.