NAVY NEWS, MARCH 2011
RN guns stop the Hun
SO THE obvious ques
An inevitable disaster
NEARLY 70 years since she blew up off Arran, the loss of wartime escort carrier HMS Dasher continues to generate interest – and headlines. Two thirds of her ship’s company died when Dasher was rocked by an internal explosion and quickly sank. To tragedy was added cover-up
– the Admiralty forbade mention of the disaster which historians have spent the past seven decades trying to understand.
Chief among them are John and Noreen Steele who live in Ardrossan – the Ayrshire town overlooking the spot where Dasher exploded and sank – and who have spent the past two decades investigating the carrier’s sad fate. Their latest research forms the basis of The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher (Kestrel, £9.99 ISBN 978-0953263714). In the past the Steeles have argued that the ‘man who never was’ was a Dasher crew member, one John Melville (although Whitehall belatedly acknowledged that Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael was the fictional Major Martin used to deceive the Germans over the invasion of Sicily). As the title suggests, in their
publication of a book about Germans in a land battle? Well, aside from the fact that The German Army at Ypres 1914 (Pen & Sword, £25 ISBN 978-1848841130) wis a bloody good read, Jack Sheldon’s book sheds fresh light on the small, yet important, part played by the Royal Navy in the opening clashes of the Great War. In popular culture the WW1 is dominated by the ‘futile’ battles of Verdun, Somme and Passchendaele and the bitter poetry of the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. That’s given us a rather jaundiced view of the 1914-1918 armageddon: it wasn’t all trenches and ‘over the top’.
The opening months of the Great War are as dynamic and dramatic as the blitzkrieg campaigns a generation later. With the German march on
Paris thwarted on the River Marne, the two sides sought to outflank each other in northwest France and Belgium – a series of battles known as ‘the race to the sea’.
In the final days of October the
Germans were on the verge of breaking through near the small Belgian town of Nieuwpoort near the mouth of the Yser. And it was here, says the author
– Britain’s leading authority on the German Army in the Great War – that the Royal Navy “saved the day”.
fourth book on the subject, the Steeles argue that the Americans had a hand in the disaster – namely that botched work in US shipyards doomed Dasher from the outset. She began life as the merchantman
Rio de Janeiro, but the need to protect convoys meant she was converted into a ‘escort carrier’ – half the size and one third of the number of aircraft of a full-size flat-top. The conversion was hurried. When she arrived in the UK, Dasher underwent some equally hurried work in Greenock, then was pressed into service for the invasion of North Africa without the crew having sufficient time to work-up. Dasher survived Operation Torch and a Russian convoy run (although the Arctic weather revealed the extent of the poor workmanship converting the vessel).
she was back at sea. Preparing to support the war against the U-boat in the Battle of the Atlantic, Dasher exploded off Arran on March 27 1943. Petrol vapour, probably ignited by a discarded cigarette, was thought to be the cause. Within eight minutes, the ship was gone. Despite the title, the cover-
up surrounding Dasher’s fate demonstrated by the authors here is less American than Anglo-American. London didn’t wish to rock the
boat with Washington – although it did; it advised the Americans that the design of their escort carriers was faulty (the Americans in turn blamed inexperienced RN officers for the tragedy). Certainly the Admiralty does not come out well of this un edifying story:
■ A naval pilot who flew over the ship as she blew up was told categorically by a Whitehall staff officer that nothing had happened. ■ The Board of Inquiry failed to interview key witnesses – it deliberately sidelined Dasher’s captain who had voiced his concerns about safety aboard. ■ Safety standards were ‘low’ – not just in Dasher, but across the RN’s fleet of escort carriers – but sailors were not properly trained
Dasher’s CO, Capt Boswell, is one man who comes out of the sorry story with honour..
He maintained to his death that there should be a full inquiry into the disaster. He has been dead for more than 35 years – and still the Dasher story rumbles on.
Barely had she been repaired than
Enter Rear Admiral Horace Hood in the pre-dreadnought HMS Venerable and a motley assortment of monitors and destroyers (two of them French) to pummel the Hun sweeping along the coast (today we’d call it Naval Gunfire Support). Hood’s guns all but wiped out 4th Ersatz (Replacement) Division – German accounts talk of a “hurricane of fire” which
Why a review in a naval
reduced a division to a battalion. The fighting
was not entirely one-sided, h o we ve r. U-boats tried to strike at the bombarding forces – and were driven away by Hood’s destro y er screen – while Ger man coastal ba tter ies hammered away at the warships. They scored hits on at least four vessels, wiping out the six-pounder gun crew on destroyer HMS Syren. It was the Germans who suffered the most. One NCO complained that the naval bombardment forced his men “to lead the life of cave dwellers”. Above all the barrage from the sea bought the Allies time – time Belgian engineers used to open the sluice gates and flood the Flanders terrain,
yatthe decisively stalling the enemy advance.
And when all the talk in the upper echelons of the Navy and Government recently has been about Anglo-French co-operation at sea, it’s nothing new. When Venerable pulled out of bombardment, Hood remained to direct the battle, shifting his flag to L’Intrépide – the first time a Royal Navy officer had commanded on a French vessel without it being taken first as a prize.
By the time Hood’s guns fell silent, battle was raging 20 miles inland near the village of Langemark, just outside Ypres. It’s a battle which in the
German psyche is on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade. It became known as the
Pi iPrints in printi
● A Royal Navy monitor – possibly HMS Humber – off the Flanders coast in October 1914 during the Fleet’s small but vital contribution to the ‘race to the sea’
Kindermord – slaughter of the innocents – as hastily-trained volunteers,
students, were scythed down by British troops.
many of them
was turned into an heroic epic, a German Thermopylae, young men willingly advancing towards death,
anthem as they went. Through harrowingly-vivid
first-hand accounts, the author demolishes the heroic myth – although the troops really did enter battle singing Deutschland über Alles and other patriotic songs, among them Heil Dir im Siegerkranz (Hail to thee in Victor’s Crown)... sung to the same tune as God Save the King which probably baffled the Brits they were attacking. By the time the battle petered out in mid-November, Allies and Germans alike were exhausted and soldiers on both sides
singing the national Under the Nazis the Kindermord
were occupying hurriedly-dug trenches: the Western Front had solidified from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. A concerted propaganda campaign in 1914 has left us with images of a beastly Hun raping and pillaging their way across north-west Europe (there were atrocities committed, but not of the boiling babies variety...). But the experiences and emotions of many Fritzes aren’t all that different from Tommies or les poilus. One soldier from Bavaria was haunted by the fighting at Ypres that first autumn of the war. He captured his feelings in poetry – in words not a million miles away from Owen, Brooke, Sassoon or Grenfell.
They march past me in silence,
Each with a staring eye A never-ending cortège Of fallen, passing by.
Phillip Ward did not set out to write a detailed history of the hospital and its considerable contribution to medical advances over the centuries – several historians have already done that. Their aim with The Royal Hospital Haslar: A Pictorial History (www. haslarheritagegroup.co.uk
, £18.99 ISBN 978-1-86077- 589-5) was to capture the hospital in photographic form, researching hundreds of images of all aspects of life at Haslar, dating from the Victorian era to its closure in 2007, and the result is a fascinating record of the 256 years of service to the sick and wounded provided by the Gosport hospital. Looking at the photographs of Haslar’s wards with gleaming floors, immaculate bed-linen and dedicated nurses, it’s hard to believe that medical care has advanced in every way. The Haslar Heritage Group also commissioned a new march Haslar Farewell, which can be found on the namesake CD, with music performed by the Royal Marines Association Concert Band.
The good Pubs guide 1913-55
BETWEEN 1913 and 1955 half the offi cers who entered the Royal Navy never attended the Royal Naval
College, Dartmouth. Most of these were from the ‘Special Entry’ – conceived by Winston Churchill’s
just before World War 1 to deal with an expected shortfall in lieutenants. The ‘Special Entry’ took boys aged 18 when they left their civilian schools, usually public schools, which gave the new ‘Churchill Scheme’ its more usual name of ‘Public School Entry’ or ‘Pubs’ for short, writes Professor Eric Grove of the University of Salford. The fi rst term was given a full
year’s instruction in the cruiser Highfl yer but the coming of war led to its replacement by 1-2 terms in the Royal Naval College, Keyham. This was supplemented once more by a cruiser from mid-1918 and by the following year the entire course was held in various ships, settling down from 1924 as the battleship Thunderer. She was a static hulk by this time and sea training was carried out in an attached sloop. The battleship was replaced in 1926 by the monitor Erebus, which doubled as turret drill ship for Devonport gunnery school. She lasted until 1933 when the cruiser Frobisher – a name to be long associated with the ‘Pubs’ – was chosen for the entire training of ‘Pubs’ and to give sea time to the Dartmouth cadets (the ‘Darts’). Rearmament meant an increase in the numbers of Special Entries from 1936 and it was decided in 1937 to re-use Erebus as a static training ship, this time at Portsmouth, the fi rst classroom based term.
The Grove Review
Frobisher was replaced by the heavily-converted training cruiser Vindictive but in 1939 briefl y took over the monitor’s static role for a term until the May 1939 ‘Frobishers’ went to Dartmouth for a two- term course. Training remained ashore,, moving to Eaton Hall after the bombing of Dartmouth in 1942. In 1944 the second term began to be taken in ships once again, fi rst the converted merchant ship Corinthian and the old light cruisers Dauntless and Diomede and then
from 1945 the faithful Frobisher once more.
Ironically soon after Frobisher
was restored the name of the Special Entries changed to ‘Benbows’. So things remained, one term ashore and two afl oat. Dartmouth recommissioned again in 1946 and Frobisher was replaced by HMS Devonshire the same year... and the latter was replaced by the carrier Triumph in 1953. Two years later the whole scheme of RN offi cer training was changed. In some respects the model of the Special Entry at 18 was enlarged in the new COST scheme to include all offi cers, with Dartmouth being altered from school to naval academy. The above account could not previously have been written without much research and it
is a tribute to the author of an important new study of The Churchill Scheme that it can be done so easily and clearly. The author is John Beattie a member of the Benbow Term at Eaton Hall on September 1 1946 and the fi rst to go to HMS Devonshire. He was invalided out of the Navy in 1957 but then had a distinguished career in industry before becoming the expert on the history of his entry,
an institution he had ne
never attended. T
chr sup cop
of a well-illustrated chronological account supplemented by copious appendices
which set out in detail all 67 terms, those who from these terms attained fl ag rank, those who were lost or died in the inter-war and immediate post-war periods, material on schools, lists of the offi cers from Commonwealth and foreign navies who trained with the Special Entries who attained fl ag rank, a section on interview boards (that goes on to 1986) and a list of offi cers in charge of Special Entry Training. The volume also covers those
entries associated with the Special Entry, the Direct Entry cadets from the Merchant Navy schools, the Paymaster Cadets and the Artifi cer Direct Entries.
The result is a most useful book of reference and an important contribution to the history of naval offi cer entry and training. This has tended, misleadingly,
The book consists
Dartmouth in 1992 , an
Special Entries that was dedicated at D
remembrance for Sp
fruit of which was the compilation of a book of re
t o the fi rst
to concentrate on the history of Dartmouth,
that is. Beattie is always ready to sing the comparative praises of ‘Pubs’ versus
‘Darts’. Sometimes the
criticism of the Darts verges on the tribal, but it would appear that from the mid-30s the comparison of ‘Pubs’ and ‘Darts’ in both quality and quantity was moving in the former’s favour. There are issues here worthy
of further research however; the author admits that
better in the training cruiser because they were older. The name ‘Public School
Entry’ seems well founded when one looks at the schools from which Special Entries were drawn: unsurprisingly,
Nautical College topped the list but Portsmouth Grammar School was very well represented with almost as many entries as Eton and more than Rugby or Winchester.
The decision to send term SE48 to Dartmouth is a matter of some signifi cance as one of its more distinguished members was Prince Philip of Greece, who made a distinct impression on Princess Elizabeth on a royal visit to the College that summer. Beattie says that the term did not go to Frobisher or Vindictive because of overcrowding but close study of the excellent tables makes one question this. In other accounts of this matter, including my own, the cause was Frobisher and Vindictive being considered in 1939 for conversion to active service (Vindictive as a repair ship).
Having served at the altar many times where it is displayed I was always under the impression that all that beautiful chapel was dedicated to the unfortunate young offi cer’s memory. The Churchill Scheme is a
privately-published limited edition and is available from the author at £20 plus postage (£3 per book UK, £6 rest of Europe, £10 rest of world) from J H Beattie, Willow House,
D’Abernon, Cobham, Surrey. It really is a signifi cant piece of
work and a mine of information and is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of the Royal Navy’s offi cer corps in the 20th Century.
Blundel Lane, Stoke
DESCRIBED by Queen Victoria as the ‘noblest of institutions’ it would be difficult to think of a hospital more loved than the Royal Hospital Haslar. Some of the great London hospitals have earlier foundations, but Haslar’s story of British military history is unique. The 8,000-12,000 bodies which lie buried in the paddock bear testimony to Britain’s global reach since the 1750s. Eric Birbeck, Ann Ryder, and
Another quibble is the book’s reference to the commemoration at Dartmouth for Special Entry Midshipman Brett Ince, killed on the bridge of Prince of Wales on 24 May 1941, as a mere plaque.
HP BOOKFINDERS: Established professional service locating out of print titles on all subjects. No obligation or SAE required. Contact: Mosslaird, Brig O’ Turk, Callander, FK17 8HT Telephone/Fax: (01877) 376377 firstname.lastname@example.org www.hp-bookfinders.co.uk
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