NAVY NEWS, AUGUST 2010
Mounting a defence
‘DICKIE’ Mountbatten will always remain the most controversial Naval offi cer of his generation.
‘DICKIE always re controv of hi
Maple seamen aple sle ea
IN KEEPING with the Canadian Navy’s centennial featured earlier in this edition, there’s an offi cial history charting the service’s fi rst 100 years.
The Naval Service of Canada 1910-2010: The Centennial Story (Natural Heritage Books, £24 ISBN 978-1554884704) is an excellent and beautifully- produced overview of the former dominion’s fleet from its difficult birth to its current global role. A dozen experts and historians
Respected and admired by
some, mistrusted and even hated by others, he has always been diffi cult to assess in a balanced way, writes Prof Eric Grove of the University of Salford. Philip Zeigler, his authorised had constantly to
remind himself that his subject, “despite everything really was a great man.” The latest contribution to this
were asked to write chapters detailing the various eras and phases in the Navy’s life. For the fi rst four decades of its 100-year existence, the Royal Canadian Navy was inextricably bound with the Fleet which gave birth to it – courtesy of two titanic clashes with the German Navy. Canada’s premier at the time of his navy’s birth was one Sir Wilfrid Laurier whose words are as prescient now as they were in 1910: “Whoever may take over the reins of power will have to have a navy, as every nation with a seashore must have.” The fledgling RCN was
woefully unprepared for the first war in 1914 (the Admiralty haughtily dismissed offers of assistance and suggested the Dominion focus on building up her Army). Charged principally with protecting Canadian shores and helping to marshall convoys to Europe, the RCN did not especially cover itself in glory. The press lambasted the Navy for failing to safeguard the fishing fleet while the public (unfairly) blamed it for a terrible explosion – the largest man-made blast in the pre-nuclear age – on a munitions ship which flattened Halifax. How things were different a
historiography is Mountbatten: The Apprentice Warlord (IB Tauris, £25 ISBN 978-1 84885- 374-4). Its author is Adrian Smith of Southampton University who has been using his position working beside the Mountbatten archives on campus to write what is, in effect, an academic commentary on Mountbatten’s career up to his departure in 1943 to take up the South East Asian Supreme Command.
The book is in four broadly chronological but overlapping parts:
Courtier, Charmer and Chancer’; ‘Mountbatten at War 1914- 39’;
Mountbatten’s period as Captain(D) of the Fifth Destroyer Flotilla 1939-41; and, fi nally his period as Chief of Combined Operations, 1941-43. The author puts forward a generally positive spin on a subject who understood the potential of spin doctoring long before the term was invented.
He paints a picture of a vulnerable man hiding behind a traditional privileged – indeed royal – exterior, but very conscious of the dynamics of modern communications and social change in altering the way he could project a positive image consonant with these powerful forces. His driven nature led to disasters
of naval leadership that no-one without his social advantages could have overcome. His relationship with Churchill obtained for him higher command posts to which his talents of intrigue and double dealing were more suited. The great blot on Mountbatten’s
generation later. At every step of Britain’s struggle against Germany and, later, Japan, the Royal Canadian Navy was there. Indeed, the RCN mushroomed
thirtyfold in WW2, principally to deal with the U-boat menace. That struggle was, says the author of that chapter, “the formative experience of the Royal Canadian Navy”. It is a war of reservists in largely Canadian- built warships to defend North Atlantic trade. It was an unglamorous job and one with few ‘kills’ (only 33 of the 1,000 or so U-boats sunk by the Allies were destroyed by Canadian warships), but it paved the way for the RCN’s post-war role with NATO. Half-way through the Cold
War, the RCN ceased to exist. As part of a reorganisation of the nation’s forces; the White Ensign was laid up and the Royal Canadian Navy became Maritime Command, the naval element of the new tri-Service Canadian Forces; the merger of the country’s three Forces was intended to save money by cutting back on bureaucracy. Four decades later, the ‘joint’ question dominates British military thinking – and has prompted a few internecine squabbles.
fi rst period of higher defence management was the disastrous Dieppe Raid. The greatest strength of this
The Grove Review
volume is its up-to-date assessment of Mountbatten’s disputed role. Despite a well-judged critique of Brian Loring Villa’s methodology, in the end Smith seems to support the critical line of the Canadian historian that the raid was not authorised by the Chiefs of Staff. Smith puts forward a powerful argument (contrary to Zeigler’s considered view) that Churchill did indeed alter the account in his own history of the war to correspond with Mountbatten’s oft-repeated mantra that the raid was an inevitable sacrifi ce on the learning curve that led to the Normandy landings. The synthesis is provided by
the work of David Reynolds who is quoted as asserting
Mountbatten had been given authority to act alone, that makes him largely responsible for the shambles – hence the desperate attempts... to shift the blame.” At times the book reads a little like a PhD student’s literature review with the author letting his sources – as just quoted – make the salient points, rather than he himself. Certainly the book has a discursive and loose feel to it which detracts from its overall impact. In places, it is hard to deduce whose side the author is on, Mountbatten’s or the critics’. Balance is fi ne but confusion is not.
however is its inadequate and ill- informed analytical approach to the naval history of the period. Important sources are missing from the copious footnotes. The author does not understand the true reasons for the vulnerability of World War I battle-cruisers in which Mountbatten began his career; it was poor ammunition handling not design faults that led to fatal explosions.
spoiled by inadequate knowledge of the technical background. The Mountbatten archives and the other sources used give the author a rather slanted impression of the personal infl uence of Mountbatten and others in ship design and fi tting.
The author is generally balanced in his coverage of major incidents that marked this eventful time, when Mountbatten was lucky not to lose his leading destroyer earlier, be it the famous Kelly or her substitute HMS Javelin that had two German torpedo hits which blew off its bow and stern. Smith puts Mountbatten’s ‘tefl on coating’ to Churchill’s need for unblemished heroes to maintain national morale.
Happily his predecessors (who Smith treats in a rather old-fashioned, critical way) had provided the prime minister with enough well built destroyers for there to be suffi cient margin for such dangerous adventures to be tolerated.
At times mistakes are serious and confusing.
The author thinks the debate at
the Admiralty at the start of the ill- fated Norwegian campaign, when the First Sea Lord returned tired from a visit to the Mountbattens, was about calling off the mining of Norwegian coastal waters. It was not; it was about whether
Its most serious problem,
● A sailor with promise... A Cadet Battenberg – as he was then – pictured at BRNC, circa 1914
Admiralty trying to hold on to everything and ending up with nothing.
The discussion of the naval air question – important given Mountbatten’s role in the transfer of the FAA to Admiralty control – is also weak. The 1917 Admiralty would have been surprised to learn of its ‘readiness’ to give up its aircraft to the new third Service; the problem was more one of the
The author is very wide of the mark to argue that if Churchill had still been First Lord in 1917 the situation would have been different; the future prime minister was always a strong supporter of an independent air service. His help in eventually getting the FAA passed to the Navy was a result of Admiralty intrigue in which the under-estimated Chatfi eld used Mountbatten as a useful go- between.
The section on Mountbatten’s
period in command of the Fifth Destroyer Flotilla is again rather
a British occupation force designed precisely to respond to any German aggression caused by the mining be ordered to disembark. The decision of the ‘well dined’ First Lord to act on the mistaken assumption that it was a major German Atlantic breakout and the troops be put ashore was the beginning of a long chapter of accidents. The above defects do not
prevent the book being useful and interesting. One insight is the Anglo-American relations dimension of putting Mountbatten in command of HMS Illustrious when the ship (not however the RN’s latest carrier at the time as Smith asserts) was being repaired in the USA.
On balance the book does shed much interesting light on Mountbatten and is a worthwhile – if sometimes frustrating – read. Its contrasting strengths and weaknesses remind one of its subject.
The fi nal testimony
WE NOTED with sadness that the passing of Henry Allingham last year meant our ties with the Great War generation – and the Grand Fleet – had fi nally been cut. Not so, for there’s the forgotten
in both World Wars – and one of only three people on the planet alive today (mid-July) who served in the 1914-1918 conflagration. The former senior rating is suf-
He is the last man to see action
British sailor, Claude Choules, still with us at the age of 109, albeit half a world away from his native land.
on ‘walks’ (really marches), play music or learn to dance. Smoking was forbidden until they became ordinary seamen at the age of 18 (caning again the pun- ishment for boys who erred).
career began in ear- p
nest with battleship at
HMS Revenge at t
Scapa Flow – most g
sailors, the young Choules among them,
fering from failing health, but two decades ago, when he was a mere octogenarian, he recorded his life packed with experiences for his family in a number of old school notebooks. Twenty years later, those notes
So perhaps it’s worth taking a leaf out of Canada’s book. There was much huffing and puffing in the upper echelons of the Navy about morale, eradication of tradition, ethos and the like... ... Yet the official historian Richard Mayne says the ordinary rank and file didn’t especially care.
pay, better conditions ashore, and the ratio of ship-to-shore time. Thus were it ever so...
They were more interested in
were transcribed and form the basis of The Last of the Last: The Final Survivor of the First World War (Mainstream, £16.99 ISBN 978-1-84596-6317). Choules joined the Royal Navy
place monotonous. Yet occasionally the Grand Fleet offered grand sights.
“Imagine a line of battleships stretching for miles, steaming at
found the Choules’
It’s forgotten now, but the end of WW1 was a cause of tremendous celebration. A Fleet Review was staged off Southend in July 1919, while sailors were dispatched to London to take part in a huge victory parade.
Lon in p
at the age of 14 – the Army rejected him because of his youth, but not the RN (courtesy of some string-pulling by his father). His account of training at HMS
Mercury is an excellent window into the life of a boy seaman in the early 20th Century – a world of strict discipline, drill, schooling, training, cleaning, church, sport. Serious dissent meant a caning, in front of the entire ship’s company. There wasn’t a great deal of fun; in spare hours, the boys would go
20kts, with lines of destroyers out on either beam doing the same speed,” he recalls. “A signal flying from the flagship is hauled down, the destroyers out on the star- board beam at a distance of half a mile turn slighty towards the line of battleships and increase speed as they approach, finally passing between them with the distance between the battleships only two cable lengths apart.”
Otherwise, life at Scapa was dull – except on Mondays when ships would practise what might be called a forerunner of today’s Thursday Wars: battle drill “at full speed and full pressure” such as fire-fighting and sending rescue details to other ships.
Revenge was dis- patched to the Mediterranean and Black Sea where there was little sign of peace: Turkey was in turmoil and Russia was rocked by revolution. Malta offered some respite... and Choules and his shipmates ‘borrowed’ a train to return to their ship rather than wait in Città Vecchia
M Bl the of was Rus by offe and ship a tr their wait
unteers to serve as instructors in Australia in the mid-20s, the now PO Choules put his name forward. He was never to return to the
When the call came for vol-
b o a
Australia. They didn’t. His knowledge of explosives came in handy at home, too. His daughter was terrified of a frog whose morning croaks woke her. Claude decided to dispatch of the pesky amphibian with a bit of gelignite under the frog’s favourite shrubs. He lit the fuse, retreated and... bang. “I was sure that I had fixed it, but almost immedi- ately the old frog started croaking again,” he writes. The Australian element makes these memoirs slightly different – and it’s interesting to contrast the reactions to the war’s end in Fremantle and Perth with those in Britain a generation earlier. They were almost identical.
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War has a funny side
IT’S not often we laugh out loud at the Navy News offi ces. War. Death. Destruction. It tends to get you down. So enter Ian ‘George’
Ditch’s Laughing Kitbags (Authorhouse, £10.99 ISBN 978- 1-4490-7107-3/www.ianditch. co.uk
), a ribald collection of dits from two dozen years’ service as a helicopter engineer with the Fleet Air Arm. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. The language is a bit choice (the author calls it “no nonsense”) and the spelling/ grammar is a little suspect, but if you’ve served in the RN in the past 30 or 40 years, you’ll recognise the characters – and escapades – which fill Ian’s memoirs (the title comes from Jackspeak: laughing till you can laugh no more). A run ashore in Hamburg (to places HMS Bulwark’s command team naturally urged matelots to stay well clear of), the odd scrap, gash Popeye tats, Royal Marines demolishing snowmen in Norway. Memories to last a lifetime and all typical RN fare...
Now no collection of
humourous nautical tales would be complete without a dig at the Crabs...
... so when the Commando Helicopter Force was in Bosnia in the 90s, the lads fancied a curry night. A mate offered to bring take- aways to camp from home. Not the easiest thing to smuggle into the middle of a war-torn country.
Enter a 4x3 ‘Thomas bin’ packed with India’s very finest cuisine, some gaffer tape, and the words: ‘Giro, handle like eggs’ and ‘Aircraft components, very fragile’ down the side. The Crabs duly delivered said ‘parts’ from Yeovilton to Bosnia, the lads had a tremendous curry night and took a photo to prove it... which featured in the local paper. A few days later Ian’s CO was answering questions about taxpayers’ money being used to fly curry from Somerset to the Balkans courtesy of Crab Air.
RN; on the voyage out he met his future wife and, after a year at Flinders Naval Depot, Melbourne, he was asked to transfer to the Royal Australian Navy. By WW2 he was a seasoned
torpedoman and expert in demo- lition; he was tasked with deal- ing with washed-up mines and depth charges, and preparing Fremantle’s harbour for demoli- tion should the Japanese invade
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