Nelson: VADM Collingwood

VADM Collingwood


VADM Collingwood was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne some eight years before Nelson. His father was a prominent Northumberland merchant who encouraged his son to join the Royal Navy at age 11, as a volunteer in HMS Shannon, commanded by young Cuthbert’s cousin, CAPT Richard Braithwaite. He swiftly gained promotion to Midshipman and by 1767 he was a Masters Mate. After participating in the American Battle of Bunker Hill, he was appointed Lieutenant in 1775.

VADM Collingwood assumed command of the victorious British fleet at Trafalgar after the death of his friend, Nelson.

In HMS Hornet, serving in the Caribbean, Collingwood had little respect for his captain, who later accused him of disobedience and neglect of duty. Acquitted by court martial of these charges in 1777, he joined HMS Lowestoff as First Lieutenant. It was during this period that he became firm friends with fellow LEUT Horatio Nelson and as Post-Captain followed Nelson in command of HMS Hinchinbrook. In the spring of 1780 they fought alongside each other in the disease-ridden San Juan campaign. Of 200 in Collingwood’s company, only 20 survived.

Until about 1786 Collingwood, his brother Wilfred and Nelson intercepted and seized chiefly American ships that were illegally trading in the Caribbean. In 1791 he returned to Newcastle and married Sarah Blackett, a granddaughter of ADML Roddam, under whom he served when the latter commanded HMS Lennox.

Sarah and Collingwood had two daughters, born in 1792 and 1793.

Cape St Vincent

Later in 1793, Collingwood was appointed captain of HMS Barfluer, flying the flag of RADM Bowyer as part of Lord Howe’s Channel Fleet. In the Battle of the First of June, in 1794, Bowyer received a severe head wound, leaving Collingwood in command. He registered discomfort when he was overlooked for a Gold Medal presentation.

In command of HMS Excellent at Cape St Vincent in 1797, he captured the El Salvador del Mondo and the Santissima Trinidad, a large four-decker. For this and other work, he earned a Gold Medal and the formal thanks of CDRE Nelson.

Continuing chiefly in the Channel Fleet, he was promoted to VADM under Cornwallis in 1804. Off Cadiz, he was joined by VADM Nelson on 28 September after the latter’s fruitless chase of Villeneuve across the Atlantic. With his flag in Royal Sovereign, Collingwood was the second in command of British ships, leading the leeward column against the combined French and Spanish Fleet off Trafalgar. Collingwood’s brilliant service was at once acknowledged by his being raised to the peerage as Baron Collingwood of Caldburne and Hethpoole in Northumberland; by a pension of £2,000 a year for life, with, after his death, £1,000 a year to his widow and £500 to each of his daughters; by the Thanks of Parliament; by a valuable testimonial from Lloyds Patriotic Fund; by a sword from the Duke of Clarence, and another Gold Medal.

His subsequent career, mainly at sea, elicited little of interest, but this may have been due more to the thoroughness of Nelson’s work than anything else. Collingwood’s health started to fail and he died as he was returning to England, in 1810. His body was brought to England and buried alongside his brother-officer Nelson in St Paul’s.

Nelson: ADML Hood

ADML Samuel Viscount Hood (1724-1816)

ADML Hood (painted by James Northcote about 1784.)

Samuel Hood, the son of a vicar, joined the RN as a midshipman in 1741, at age 16, sharing duties with fellow MIDN George Rodney in HMS Ludlow. Qualifying as a Lieutenant in 1746, he saw active service in the North Sea and the North American Station. By 1753 he was the commander of the sloop HMS Jamaica (14 guns) and achieved post rank in 1756.

Brilliant career

In temporary command of HMS Antelope (originally a fourth rate 50 gun ship, but rebuilt in 1741) Hood drove a French ship ashore and captured two privateers in 1757. In 1759 he captured the French Bellona. He worked with Rodney in destroying vessels earmarked for an invasion in 1755, but after a brilliant career he was virtually retired in 1778 with an appointment as Commissioner of the Portsmouth Dockyard and Governor of the Naval Academy.

In 1780 he was made a baronet and, chiefly because of a shortage of available flag officers willing to serve under Lord Sandwich, he was promoted RADM to work as second-in-command under his old fellow-midshipman, Rodney.

From Hood’s letters, it was clear that the anticipated working harmonious relationship with Rodney never developed, but Hood was a loyal and efficient officer who acted professionally at all times. During the War of American Independence he tried to cooperate with British forces ashore and was frustrated when Rodney failed to take his advice, allowing French reinforcements to land unmolested at Fort Royal in April 1781. Under ADML Graves, he was in a fleet confused by two conflicting flagship signals. This contributed to a French fleet, under the Comte de Grasse, driving off a British force in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.

With Rodney absent in England and in independent command back in the West Indies Station, Hood distinguished himself during the ultimately unsuccessful defence of St Kitts and Nevis.

On 25 January 1782 he seized the Basse Terre anchorage from de Grasse. After successfully defending it from a superior French force of 29 ships, he slipped away with his 22 ships to rendezvous with 12 more under Rodney. Their aim was to prevent de Grasse joining up with a Franco-Spanish fleet at Haiti, which would have given the enemy a force of 55 ships of the line and 20,000 troops to attack British-held Jamaica.

The British and French fleets met off the Saintes on 12 April and while the battle began conventionally enough at 0740, a fortuitous change of wind at 0905 created gaps in the French line. Rodney seized the initiative, luffed, and with six ships pierced the enemy line. By 1800 the Comte de Grasse, his flagship and four others had surrendered to Hood’s forces.

Hood’s work was regarded by many as the most brilliant action by any British admiral of that period.

Irish peerage

Rewarded with an Irish peerage, he returned to England and was elected MP for Westminster in 1784. Promoted VADM in 1787, he became Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, in May 1793. With the Spanish RADM Gravina, he occupied French Toulon in August but was driven out in December 1793. A planned raid on the Golfe Jouan anchorage in June 1794, was frustrated by lack of wind.

Attaining full Admiral rank in 1794, Hood held no further appointment at sea, but was made Governor of Greenwich Hospital and held that post until his death in 1816. He was created Viscount Hood of Whitley in 1796.

Nelson: Early RN years

 Royal Navy: the early years

Sociologists tend to argue that it is not so much the individual who changes history. Instead, it is the struggles of the masses and random chance that selects any one of hundreds if not thousands of otherwise suitable individuals to be the figurehead for inevitable societal change. On the other hand, it might be difficult to argue against the position that it takes a very singular person with very special leadership qualities, rather than the struggle of the masses, to produce a person with the unique “Nelson touch”.

Superior leadership

Consistent superior leadership under fire is just one of the many essential prerequisites to success in war. Bad leadership certainly loses battles, if not wars, even nations. In Nelson’s day, his reputation alone was sufficient to create a sense of panic in his enemy, causing them to make errors of both omission and commission.

At Aboukir in 1798, the otherwise meticulous de Brueys should have ensured that his theoretically sound anchor plan had been executed properly. He failed to do this, allowing Nelson’s ships not only to exploit a tactical weakness but, by Nelson’s overwhelming victory, drastically alter the strategic balance of the European nations competing for Asian influence and trade.

Villeneuve, at Trafalgar in 1805, knew that his fleet was at least equal to if not superior in every numerical respect to Nelson’s. He also correctly guessed Nelson’s tactics. Nevertheless, instead of attacking, as Nelson probably would have done, he tried to scuttle back to Cadiz when he heard that Nelson was in the offing. This course reversal threw his fleet into disarray, contributed to his defeat and significantly changed European history.

Nelson, although brilliant, did not appear magically and achieve these remarkable victories alone. He had the support of ships, men, stores and systems that responded to his superior leadership qualities. He learned his trade the hard way, through experience, studying battles, listening to others, and finally making sure his officers and men knew exactly what he wanted of them.

To understand Nelson, it is useful not only to study Nelson’s history, but to put that history into context by studying his contemporaries. Some of the British, French and Spanish leaders who are interwoven with the Nelson legend are described on the following pages. They are chosen more at random than order of importance and there are just as many other commanders deserving mention. They are presented in no particular order.

Where to start in the story of the naval commanders? It would be too long a bow to draw to go all the way back to the Classis Britannica of Ancient Roman times, although it was these tiny warships that first demonstrated the fundamental strategy of controlling the English Channel with a strong fleet as a bulwark against invasion.

Henry 7henry8elizabeth
It was the three Tudor monarchs, Henry 7 (left), Henry 8 and Elizabeth 1 who established the first potent English navy. It was allowed to fall into disrepair, but they set the standards by which later leaders reinvigorated the Service.

When that organisation fell into disuse, the fourth century Jutes and Saxons found it easy to raid and even colonise English coastal towns. After some fits and starts, usually in response to one seaborne threat or another, it was the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who started naval shipbuilding and naval dockyard construction in earnest.

The “privateering” of chiefly Spanish ships and Caribbean ports became strongly linked with British naval service in Elizabethan times. While British valour and efficiency was acknowledged, failure to curb this piratical behaviour, together with Drake’s Cadiz raid, contributed to Philip of Spain’s decision to invade England in 1588.

Legends notwithstanding, weather and other considerations might well have been more important than British naval efficiency in the destruction of the 130-ship Spanish Armada. Both sides virtually emptied their magazines without causing much vital damage to their opposite numbers.

It was after the British attack with eight fireboats off Calais that the entire remaining Spanish fleet of 120 or so ships could probably have negotiated the English Channel again and returned to Spain, had the wind been fair. Instead, their reluctant and inexperienced commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, ordered the scattered Armada to retreat left-about the British Isles. Due to navigation difficulties and storms, the fleet lost half its ships and three quarters of its men.

Not so well known is the fact that between 6000 and 8000 of the British sailors who participated in the Armada died of typhus and dysentery shortly after the battle. Many were never paid for their sacrifice and service.

Nevertheless, the invasion attempt once more demonstrated the necessity of a strong navy in the defence of the British Isles. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm did not last. Time and again, after promising starts, the fleet was left to languish, ostensibly for lack of money. This culminated in a Dutch raid in 1667 that decimated a virtually immobilised and rotting British fleet at Medway.

British ships laid up in the Medway.

Therefore, compared with the well-founded Dutch and Spanish fleets, there was not much on which to build a British Navy in 1667. Beginning about 1668, the diligent Samuel Pepys and future James II revitalised the newly-christened Royal Navy (RN). By the end of the 17th century the RN had a clear strategic aim, improved support and much better administration.

It was Samuel Pepys (left) and the future James II who revitalised and named the Royal Navy.

While the RN had virtually nothing to do with initiating settlements in the Americas, it found itself defending these outposts against French, Spanish and other raiders. It also became embroiled in the War of American Independence as France and other nations took active sides supporting the rebels. The West Indies and the North American stations became the crucibles that forged the careers of many brilliant RN officers, including Nelson.

These roles swiftly expanded until the RN became an important force with world-wide reach. Naval forces captured a number of territories, frequently in response to aggression, such as Gibraltar and Minorca. At the same time they defended others, including the North American and Caribbean colonies. Epic journeys of exploration in the name of natural philosophy followed, such as those by Cook and Franklin. However, graft and corruption, even mutiny, flourished from time to time until strongly checked by FADM John Jervis and others in the late 1790s.

RN officers developed reputations, not only for maritime prowess, but also for an ability to command army units ashore, apply diplomacy and oversee civil administration. It was in 1788 that the First Fleet, commanded by Captain Phillip RN, landed on Australian soil and established a convict colony that grew into the Australian nation of today.

Around the 1780s a number of brilliant British naval commanders virtually re-wrote the rules of naval warfare. One of the first may have been ADML Sir George Rodney, who claimed responsibility for defeating a 30-ship French invasion force in the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. However it may not have been Rodney, but his second-in-command, VADM Hood, or even a fortuitous change of wind that was primarily responsible.

As well as Nelson, others of interest in this period, discussed in the pages that follow, might include FADM Jervis, ADML Hood and VADM Collingwood. For comparison, Nelson’s defeated opponents VADMs de Brueys, Villeneuve and Gravina are included.

Nelson: Biography

 Nelson: A brief biography

Nelson portrait
Nelson, wearing two of his three gold medals. (A third gold medal was awarded posthumously. Painting by John Hoppner.)

Born on 29 September 1758, to the Reverend Edmund and Catherine Nelson of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, Horatio Nelson rose from relative obscurity to become the nation’s outstanding naval officer and hero in a period of almost constant war with one nation or another. Under his leadership, British warships not only defeated numerically superior enemy vessels, but many of his victories also had profound strategic effects in the fiery European political cauldron.

He won these victories at minimal cost through superior seamanship and gunnery training together with an uncanny ability to devise and exploit novel tactical procedures. This talent became known as “the Nelson touch”.

HMS Raissonnable

His uncle, CAPT Maurice Suckling, in the 64-gun frigate, HMS Raisonnable, took him to sea for the first time, as a servant, in 1771. In 1773 he was Coxswain to CAPT Lutwidge in Carcass for a polar exploration voyage. He passed his commission examinations in 1777 and was appointed as Second Lieutenant in the 32-gun frigate Lowestoffe for duties in the West Indies. In one action, the ship captured an American privateer, but owing to heavy seas the First Lieutenant was unable to board her from a boat and he returned to the Lowestoffe. Nelson, displaying his trademark seamanship and courage, volunteered and was successful.

After charting all the passages between the Caribbean Islands in the schooner The Little Lucy, Nelson was given command of the brig Hinchinbrook on 11 June 1779, at age 20. From this ship he commanded the naval support for an assault on Fort San Juan, Nicaragua. Leaving his ship and carrying troops 100 miles up river in boats, he captured a strategic fortified island, ensuring the expedition’s limited success.

Setting the pattern

Setting a pattern that distinguished his career, he started sinking or capturing enemy ships in isolated actions at a remarkable rate. These ships frequently out-gunned or out-numbered his own force and often lay under the protection of supposedly impregnable shore batteries. While British losses under his command in terms of killed and wounded were comparatively slight, Nelson himself was frequently wounded in action. This cost him impaired vision in one eye, an arm and, at Trafalgar, his life.

Recalled to England in ill health, by 1781 he had recovered and was given command of the 6th Rate Albemarle, serving in the North Sea and in North American waters. The Boreas, another 6th Rate of 28 guns, followed in 1784 and Nelson found himself back in the West Indies. By 1786 he was in charge of that station and found time to marry Frances Nisbet, the widow of Dr Nisbet of the island of Nevis, in March 1787. Returning to England by November of that year, he paid off Boreas and was placed on half pay, facing virtual retirement before age 30.

AgamemnonLe Superbe
The fast frigate Agamemnon (left) was Nelson’s favourite ship. The adversary French frigate Le Superbe, 1784-1795, was designed by France’s premier marine architect, Jacques Noel Sane.

It was not until 30 January, 1793, that Nelson received his recall, this time to command the Agamemnon, a 3rd rate 64-gun frigate. She was the third of seven Ardent class frigates and became Nelson’s favourite ship. “Without exception one of the finest ships in the fleet, with the character of sailing remarkably well,” Nelson wrote to his wife after a 12-day Mediterranean storm. “Gales and lumping seas but in Agamemnon we mind them not; she is the finest ship I ever sailed in, and were she a 74, nothing should induce me to leave her while war lasts,” he said. French ADML Alemand said that Agamemnon was one of the fastest of all the Royal Navy ships. That attribute, together with Nelson’s abilities, made her a potent force indeed.

Calvi:loses partial sight in right eye

Instead of staying safely aboard, Nelson was ashore once more at the head of his sailors during the 51-day siege of Calvi, Corsica. An enemy shell hit nearby, throwing up stones and splinters on 10 July 1794, costing Nelson partial sight in his right eye. He remained in command of Agamemnon until 1796, when she sailed home for a badly needed refit. As she left, Nelson shifted his new Commodore’s pendant to Captain.

After a number of successful skirmishes, Nelson distinguished himself again under ADML John Jervis in the important Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797. Nelson’s initiative and skill led to the capture of two ships larger than his from a fleet of Spanish warships that outgunned and outnumbered the British 27:15.

For this action, Nelson was awarded Knight of the Bath and a gold medal. He also received a gold box from the City of London.

In April 1797, as RADM of the Blue, Nelson shifted his flag from Captain to Theseus, and contributed to the blockade of Cadiz. On 4 July, off Cadiz, his 13-man barge was boarded by a superior 30-man Spanish vessel. Undaunted, the British killed 18 and captured the Spanish commander in hand-to-hand combat for the loss of one British seaman.

Tenerife: loses right arm

Eleven days later he sailed for Tenerife, where a Spanish musket ball or shrapnel shattered his right elbow during an unsuccessful attempt to take Santa Cruz. This wound led to the amputation of his arm and his return to England.

Shaking off the surgeons’ attentions, on 19 December he hoisted his flag in Vanguard, and sailed 1 April 1798 for Cadiz and the Mediterranean. He learned of French plans to invade Egypt with a huge army that would place France in a strategic position to interdict rich British interests in India. Nelson sailed with 14 ships, three days behind a French fleet of nearly 400 vessels, including 30 French warships, with Napoleon Bonaparte himself embarked. He out-sailed the French convoy and, seeing Alexandria empty on 28th June, fruitlessly searched north to Palestine, then back-tracked to Sicily, only to sail once more for Egypt on 25 July.

At Calvi (left) Nelson lost partial sight in his right eye. At Aboukir, he destroyed the French fleet in an action that had major strategic ramifications.

On 1 August he finally located the pride of the French Mediterranean fleet, 17 warships anchored in Aboukir Bay, 37 kilometres northeast of Alexandria, in what the French thought was an impregnable formation in an impregnable anchorage. Nelson considered otherwise.

First, he chose a night action, something naval commanders traditionally avoided in those days. Secondly, sending some ships down a very narrow passage between the French ships and a shoal, he surprised the enemy who had even removed some guns from the shore side of their ships to bolster their seawards firepower. Then, employing the unexpected technique of anchoring by the stern with a spring on the anchor cable to control broadside fire into the bows or stern of the stationary French ships, his smaller fleet routed the French. The enemy ships included the massive French flagship l’Orient, a 120-gun vessel of 2,000 tonnes, one of the largest warships afloat. Under heavy bombardment, l’Orient caught fire and exploded with a roar heard 32 kilometres away. Not one British ship was lost, but 14 of the 17 French warships were destroyed or captured in this Battle of the Nile.

This success at once emasculated the 30,000-strong French Army ashore in Egypt. Instead of seriously threatening Britain’s contact with India and other Eastern outposts, its foray became meaningless because, without supplies, the French soldiers were doomed. Napoleon’s dreams of an Eastern Empire died with his fleet. For his signal performance, Nelson was created Baron of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe and was awarded a pension of £2000 a year. The Irish Parliament gave him £1000 a year, the East India Company granted him £10,000 and the City of London presented him with a sword valued at 200 guineas. His ship captains and many other officers were also richly rewarded.

Duke of Bronte

Nelson returned to Naples where he was feted because his victory had reduced the threat of French incursions in Italy. The King of Naples conferred upon him the title Duke of Bronte in Sicily with an income of £3000 a year. His affair with Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir William Hamilton, flourished about this time and Nelson became embroiled in local issues, including land actions that restored territory to the Sicilian King.

In May 1799 Nelson was promoted to RADM of the Red and shifted his flag from Vanguard to Foudroyant. In 1800 he returned to England with the Hamiltons and was promoted again to VADM of the Blue in 1801.

Commanding another decisive action, Nelson personally reconnoitred the dangerously shallow Copenhagen Harbour before entering it in force and destroying the Danish fleet on 2 April 1801. It was just before this action that Nelson, with his telescope to his blind eye, is reported to have said that he failed to see a recall signal from his superior, ADML Sir Hyde Parker. This was not the first time Nelson had disobeyed orders. He had broken formation to cut off an enemy escape attempt when serving under the stern disciplinarian Jervis. He was elevated to the rank of Viscount on 6 May, following Copenhagen, but Nelson made his disappointment known when his captains and crews failed to receive their customary rewards.

English Channel

In ill health once more, he returned to England in June to recuperate, but by 27 July he was again at sea in command of a squadron in the English Channel at a time when an invasion of Britain was expected from a huge French army deployed along the French coast. An amphibious attack by the British on Boulogne failed, this time with heavy loss, on 15 August 1801, but after a truce between the English and the French on 22 October, he was delighted to retire to his house in Merton Surrey, a home he shared with the Hamiltons and his new daughter, Horatia, by Emma Hamilton.

This idyll was not to last. England declared war on France once more and Nelson became C-in-C Mediterranean, hoisting his flag in Victory on 18 May 1803. He stayed aboard Victory for nearly two years, chiefly blockading Toulon, without setting foot ashore.


HMS Victory at Trafalgar.

On 8 April the French fleet escaped from Toulon and headed for the West Indies. Nelson gave chase, but missed them. Returning to Portsmouth on 8 August, he once again hauled down his flag and retired to Merton Surrey to recover his failing health. Recalled once more, he sailed on Friday 13 September 1805 to command a special force to blockade the combined fleets of France and Spain in Cadiz.

Following Napoleon’s direct prodding, a total of of 33 sail of the line, four frigates and two brigs sailed from Cadiz under VADM Villeneuve on 20 October, aiming to enter the Mediterranean and link up with other warships blockaded at Cartagena. However, Villeneuve’s crews were poorly trained and his ships poorly maintained, which contributed to his decision to reverse his course and retreat to Cadiz once he found Nelson blocking his route to the Mediterranean.

The Battle of Trafalgar

This led directly to Nelson’s greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805. This decisive battle determined the political shape of Europe for decades. Instead of engaging the combined French and Spanish fleet by following standard procedures, such as sailing parallel to the enemy’s line of battle and becoming involved in a ship-to-ship shoot out, Nelson, with only 27 sail of the line and four frigates, elected to drive straight for the enemy line at virtual right angles, in two columns, break through the enemy’s line of battle and defeat the resulting small formations in detail.

An integral part of the “Nelson touch” was that his captains knew exactly what Nelson intended to do. His pre-action orders were concise and clear, with all possibilities of wind and enemy counterattacks covered. Importantly, as he stated in his written orders, amid the certain confusion of battle, “No captain can do wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”

Villeneuve, on the other hand, failed to brief his captains on defensive tactics. Furthermore, after they reversed course, Nelson found elements of the enemy fleet well scattered or well astern of station.

After trailing the combined fleet most of the previous day, Nelson’s somewhat scattered ships sighted the enemy near daybreak on 21 October. At 0615 he ordered his ships into two columns and at 0630 his flagship Victory turned to intercept. Nelson later signalled his intention to get between the enemy fleet and Cadiz and at about 1140 (the exact time is in dispute), Victory made the famous signal, “England expects every man will do his duty.” At about 1130 HMS Royal Sovereign, leading the second column, came under fire.

At about 1330, with Victory alongside the crippled French Redoutable, Nelson, in conspicuous full dress uniform, received a fatal wound from a musket shot fired from the mizzen top of the French ship, at about 15 metres range. He died about 1635, with the British fleet in clear ascendency. Of the enemy’s 33 ships, he destroyed or captured 19, severely damaged 10 and only four escaped relatively unscathed.

The enemy lost 4408 killed, 2545 wounded and the British took about 20,000 prisoners at a cost of 449 British killed and 1241 wounded. Once again, Nelson lost no ship, but many were damaged. By this single action Britain established an overwhelming maritime supremacy that lasted a century or more.

Nelson’s body was returned to the Nore on 11 December. After lying in state for three days, it was interred in St Pauls Cathedral on 9 January 1806. Nearly 10,000 troops lined the streets for his funeral procession.

Nelson’s brother, the Reverend William Nelson, inherited the title Baron Nelson of the Nile and other honours, together with a pension of £5000 a year. Nelson left nothing to his wife, Frances, but she was granted £2000 a year by the nation.

Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton
The vivacious Lady Emma Hamilton. (Painted by Johan Schmidt about 1800.)

Despite a codicil to Nelson’s will written just before Trafalgar asking the nation to take care of her, Emma Hamilton was granted nothing. She had expensive tastes and soon was forced to sell the Merton Surrey house and even spent time in a debtor’s prison. She left England for France in 1814 and died in Calais on 15 January 1815, attended only by their daughter, Horatia. At 21, Horatia married the curate Phillip Ward, and had ten children. They called their eldest son Horatio Nelson. Even so, she denied until her death in 1881 that she was the daughter of Emma Hamilton.

Today, Nelson is remembered in many ways. Around 21 October every year, British Commonwealth wardrooms around the world hold an annual commemoration dinner. In 2005, there was a special commemorative dinner for the 200th anniversary of the action.

A WW II Australian in the RNVR

An Australian RNVR in WW II

This essay was awarded second prize in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2001. It was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 46, 1 September 2001, pp 12-16.

by Noel Buckley

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 caught most people, including me, by surprise. In July and August of that year I was on a driving holiday in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and France, in company with a young Sydney doctor and a Canadian architect. Then, being of an enquiring mind, on 19 August I joined a students’ tour group on a Russian ship in the Thames Estuary, bound for Leningrad and Moscow.

The ship had not long left the Kiel Canal when radio news informed us of the signing by Germany and Russia of a Non-Aggression Pact and, on 3 September, having reached Moscow, we learnt that, following Germany’s attack on Poland, Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. It took 23 days for us touring students to get back to England, via Finland, Sweden and Norway and on a Norwegian ship across the North Sea.

I was in the middle of a post-graduate law course at Cambridge University and, in view of the Phony War situation at that time, I decided to finish my course and then return to Melbourne and join the Australian Navy. But in June 1940, when the Germans had overrun France and caused French submission, and the British Army’s evacuation from France, without its armament, left Britain alone to fight, I went to Australia House in London to see whether I could join the Australian Navy from London, but the answer was a big “No, No”. So I returned to Cambridge and signed on for the Royal Navy.

My training as a “CW” (Commissioned and Warrant candidate, ed.) naval rating started in September 1940 in HMS Collingwood and then HMS Victory. After four months training, with quite a lot of it disrupted by frequent air raids on the Portsmouth area, I was posted to a cruiser, HMS Manchester, which unexpectedly had to go into drydock for repairs and I therefore was ordered back to Portsmouth.

Blessing in disguise

This interlude was a blessing in disguise because, during my absence, some of my fellow trainees were posted to HMS Hood and, with hindsight of her early demise, I am grateful not to have been one of those fellows sent to join her.

The 50,000-ton battleship Bismarck (left) sank the 48,000-ton battlecruiser HMS Hood, 24 May 1941.

In March 1941 I was ordered to go to Scapa Flow and join HMS King George V (KGV). This battleship was newly built and was the flagship of the Home Fleet, having on board the C in C, Admiral Tovey. She was of 35,000 tons, 700 feet (213 m) long, had ten 14 inch (36 cm) and sixteen 5.25 inch (13 cm) guns and one seaplane. I served four and a half months in her.

What I remember most about her were her huge size, her convoy-covering journeys to and from Halifax in Canada (necessitated by the presence in the Atlantic of the German warships Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer), acting as lookout in the crow’s nest of the high mainmast when the ship was rolling slowly but heavily, watching the huge 14 inch shells leave the forward guns during a practice shoot, and (last, but not least) the chase after, and sinking of, the German battleship Bismarck.

The Bismarck was of similar age, of 50,000 tons, 791 feet (241 m) long, with eight 15 inch (38 cm) and twelve 5.9 inch (15 cm) guns, four aircraft, and 103 officers and 1962 crew.

Bismarck had been reported on 21 May 1941 to have left Bergen in Norway, headed for the Atlantic Ocean via the Denmark Strait, west of Iceland. The KGV was out of harbour engaged in gunnery practice when this news was received, and the Admiral ordered HMS Prince of Wales (a sister battleship), HMS Hood and two cruisers to chase and engage Bismarck.

“Sink the

Next day, as soon as KGV had refuelled, it set sail westward from Scapa Flow to try to intercept Bismarck, in company with HMS Repulse, HMS Victorious (aircraft carrier), four cruisers and seven destroyers. Two days later (24 May) we learnt that Prince of Wales and Hood had met and engaged Bismarck but Hood had been hit at long range by Bismarck and had blown up (there being only three survivors). Prince of Wales was also seriously damaged, and had to withdraw.

The Bismarck was followed for a while by a British cruiser but in the foggy conditions Bismarck managed to elude its followers and its location, somewhere south of Greenland, became a worrying mystery. Fortunately on 26 May at the end of a long search and through a hole in the clouds, a Catalina aircraft sighted Bismarck headed towards France.

Swordfish, Albacores attack

She was attacked and her steering, and perhaps speed, were impaired by torpedoes from planes of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Victorious. KGV travelling at 27 knots got to within 100 miles of the German battleship but, when joined by HMS Rodney (coming from Greenoch), KGV slowed to Rodney‘s maximum speed of 22 knots, which was the enemy’s estimated speed.

Bismarck closes KGV

Late that night when we were about 400 miles west of Brest (the French naval port) we learnt that Bismarck had turned towards KGV and that we would probably engage one another early the next morning. During the night both ships altered course at times to avoid getting too close during darkness. At daylight next day the battle began with KGV and Rodney attacking in unison.

I was on fire-watch duty below deck, so did not see Bismarck until, after some time, it had ceased firing and was leaning to port and on fire, with some of the crew jumping into the ocean. Bismarck did not hit either of the two British ships, possibly due to steering and stability problems arising from the earlier torpedo damage.

As it was known that Hitler had ordered a considerable number of aircraft and submarines to converge on the British ships, a British cruiser was told to hasten Bismarck‘s sinking by torpedoes and the British ships dispersed as quickly as possible. KGV was also in fact so short of fuel that she had to head for Loch Ewe in Scotland to refuel urgently.

Four months later, I started my very interesting officers training course in HMS King Alfred, followed by a shorter anti-submarine course in HMS Nimrod in Scotland.

In response to a question at the end of my training course as to what kind of a ship would I prefer to be posted to, I said I would like a smaller ship (thinking of one like a destroyer) but to my surprise I was posted to a convoy escort vessel, which was a converted ocean trawler.

Large trawler

HMS Northern Wave was larger than most trawlers (655 tons), with a greater length (200 feet) and a higher bow that enabled her to be kept at sea in the Arctic Ocean waters, even when the sea was very rough. So one felt reasonably safe from the natural elements even in stormy weather, provided that the bow was kept headed into the wind and waves, the single coal-fired engine did not break down, and that, when you had to move fore or aft along the deck (you couldn’t do it below decks), you were able to dodge the rushes of seawater across the deck resulting from the waves coming over the very low freeboard.

Sometimes the seawater even penetrated the officers’ cabins and the crew’s mess-deck, as the ship rolled from side to side in a gale. She carried enough “black diamond” fuel to be able to stay at sea 12 or more days at a time. Her top speed was only about 11 knots but this was enough to keep up with most merchant ship convoys. She was armed with a four-inch gun and two anti-aircraft Oerliken guns, and a load of depth charges.

Most of our convoy work was in the Western Approaches to Britain and between Britain and Iceland, but we were “sitters” to be chosen for the long Russian convoy trips because of the ship’s characteristics I have mentioned. I had the doubtful pleasure of being involved in two such return journeys: in April and May 1942 and in December 1942 to February 1943.

Murmansk convoy territory. (See Battle of the North Cape.)

My first such trip was as part of convoy PQ14 that took us 12 days to cover the 1800 miles between Iceland and Murmansk in Russia, starting on 8 April 1942. At that time of the year, there is quite a lot of daylight every 24 hours.

The Arctic Circle passes just north of Iceland, but our route went as far north as 74 degrees. The sea-ice floes retreat further north in summer than in winter, but the Admiralty had apparently miscalculated how soon that retreat began, so we ran into trouble.

We started with 32 merchant ships, with an escort of four trawlers, two minesweepers and one destroyer. We soon ran into snowstorms with thick ice forming on every horizontal part of the ship. This required constant chipping off and throwing overboard, to avoid capsizing.

Three nights later we suddenly ran into sea-ice floes (pack-ice) and these persisted for two more days and nights together with patches of thick fog, at the end of which time we had only eight cargo ships remaining in the convoy, the others having turned back. My ship had also had its anti-submarine dome (below the hull) broken off by the ice. The oscillator was no longer operational. We were glad to see that we had been joined by four destroyers and four corvettes, and a cruiser (HMS Edinburgh) was in the neighbourhood.

Engine trouble

Unfortunately for us, our ship had also developed engine trouble, which necessitated stopping for a quarter of an hour to effect repairs, and then racing to catch up with the convoy. We were not amused to receive a signal from the Commodore of the convoy saying “Try to stop making smoke.”

A further two days later, when we were nearer the Norwegian coast, our convoy was sighted by a prowling German reconnaissance plane, which circled out of gun reach, homing submarines on the convoy.

At this point we were joined by a further five destroyers. Because of sightings of submarines by the destroyers, we were at Action Stations all the next day (16 April), and at about 1 pm the Convoy Commodore’s ship (Empire Howard) was hit by two torpedoes and sank rapidly.

We were ordered by the Senior Naval Officer of the convoy to pick up any survivors, and this we did with some difficulty because our engine defect didn’t allow us to go astern. We picked up 18 men and another trawler picked up 20, out of a total crew of 56. Three of those we rescued died on board shortly afterwards because of the extremely cold water they had been in; over a quarter of an hour in the ocean there meant death.

It took the convoy a further three days to reach Murmansk, during which time my ship had to make another 35-minute stop to repair the engine, a German Junkers plane tried bombing the convoy (without success), we met patches of most welcome fog, and we saw some distant icebergs.

Frequent air attacks

Murmansk, in Kola Inlet, was not an attractive place. It was under very frequent air attack, being only about 50 miles from the German front line in northern Finland. There was almost nothing to do ashore. It was most depressing to see the large number of wounded Russian soldiers waiting for hospital admission in a very slow-moving line.

Our ship had to go into dry-dock there in order to replace our A/S dome beneath the hull. This and other repairs (to the engine) took so long that we missed joining the next return convoy. This turned out to be all to our advantage for at least two reasons. First, because that convoy was savagely attacked by German warships and the cruiser Edinburgh was sunk following torpedo damage. Second, her loss was our gain, in that the load of rum with which she had replenished us in Murmansk was recorded only in accounts at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, and that rum was most acceptable to us for use as a body-warmer on many subsequent icy occasions.

Our return journey of nine days to Iceland, towards the end of May, was with QP12, and was not quite so exciting, due in part to protective fog. However, our ship had further engine trouble and when we had to stop to effect repairs, one of the escorting destroyers signalled “Too bad.” which we thought rather out-of-place.

Under tow

However, the minesweeper (HMS Harrier) offered to tow us while the repairs were carried out, and they did so and enabled both of us to gradually catch up with the convoy.

My second journey to Murmansk (JW51A) started from Loch Ewe on December 15, 1942. This was midwinter, which gave us the benefit of very long hours of darkness each day. Despite the risk of ice floes being further south than in summer, we reached 74 degrees north again, but were lucky not be attacked by the enemy. We were fortunate in being treated to several nights of the glorious aurora borealis on the way and arrived at Murmansk after 11 days.

The return trip was less fortunate but the convoy had a powerful escort and our only loss was of one cargo ship, which was torpedoed, but with no loss of life.

In April 1943, I was posted to another trawler named HMS Haarlem, based at Gibraltar, and subsequently to another one named Lady Hogarth. These ships were employed in A/S patrolling in the Strait of Gibraltar, in escorting single or multiple merchant ships along the North African coast or down to Casablanca, and in escorting cable-repair ships doing work on defective ocean cables between Lisbon and Madeira or the Azores.



When off escort duties, I was able to climb and explore the Rock of Gibraltar itself, which is about 1400 feet high and one mile across at its base. It has numerous fascinating caves and tunnels in it, some of them made for military purposes and some made by men for living purposes in earlier centuries.

The Rock also has had built onto one side of it a huge sloping catchment cover to collect water for drinking and other purposes for Gibraltar’s inhabitants and visitors.

A further interesting experience I had was as a passenger on British submarine undertaking exercises off Gibraltar in attacking ships and evading depth-charge attacks. I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.

My service in the Royal Navy totalled six years.

Finally, I’d like to share two short poems I composed in 1945 when out on anti-submarine patrol in the Straits of Gibraltar. As you will gather when you read them, I had been a long time separated from close friends and family.

Glimpses of Beauty

There are glimpses of beauty, moments of peace,
That come to a sailor’s mind,
Though the struggle for Life, midst Death, never cease,
He’ll forget the sorrows behind.
There’s the flow of red sunsets, richest of hue,
The sheen of the moon up on high,
The fleecy-white clouds, the sea of deep blue,
And the azure that paints a clear sky.
There’s the calmness and comfort that follow the storm,
The pleasure of retaining a meal,
The glory of sunshine, face-tanning, and warm,
The fancies of dreams that seem real,
There’s the flashing of wings of a gull wind-spurned,
The gleaming of fish near the rail,
The vision of land after seas gale-churned,
The sight of a full-spread sail.
There’s the thought of his girl, or maybe his wife,
And hope for the waiting mail,
Perhaps there’s the prospect of more peaceful life,
And plans for a home in the dale.
There are pals whose acquaintance is all too brief,
The making of friendships that bind,
All these bring a beauty, a joy, and relief,
To the strain in a sailor’s mind.

And in more serious mood:


If a man be happy, then who dare say him nay?
But wait, how came he happy – at whose expense, delay?
We cannot live in isolation; we are members of a whole
Community and nation, of a world that seeks its soul.