My father left very few papers and there were quite a lot of gaps in what I knew about his Naval career so I thought I’d try to fill in the missing bits by getting some research done into Royal Navy Records in the National Archives. . As a result I now have copies of a strange mixture of documents, almost indecipherable manuscript notes , very detailed assessments of how he did in each of his jobs after he was promoted to Commander as well as confidential Admiralty reports and records, charts and signal logs. But much more important than filling the gaps I have also been able to unravel what till now has been a complete mystery - the reason why in late summer 1940, as a Rear Admiral, he was suddenly required to haul down his flag and his seagoing career came to an abrupt end . I have always known something dire must have happened. Now I know the full story in every detail and very strange and intriguing it is.
Michael Clarke: July 2006-07-26
In the spring of 1940 The Germans invaded Norway and in the following months there were several quite important Naval battles and skirmishes in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. On 16th July Rear Admiral Marshal L Clarke ( MLC ) was in command of a group called Force C which consisted of 4 Cruisers of the 18th Cruiser Squadron ( Southampton, his Flag Ship, Sussex, Shropshire and Glasgow ) together with 8 destroyers (in two Divisions, D4 and D 3 ). He was leading them through the Pentland Firth, where tidal streams can be up to 10 knots and which according to Reeds’ Nautical Almanac is just about the most difficult navigational passage in the UK. They were heading back to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. At night and in thick, changeable weather he made three attempts to take the group into harbour and each time he was foiled by the fog. As he turned away for the third time Glasgow and one of the destroyers, Imogen, collided and Imogen sank with the loss of a score or more of her crew. At the time the destroyers should have been astern of the cruisers, in line ahead and on the same course. As it turned out they were on the wrong course, in the wrong formation thus the calamity when the cruisers turned.
At the Board of Inquiry MLC took full responsibility for what had happened. He began his evidence ( I’ve got the verbatim record ) by saying that after the collision he had received a report from the Captain D, the Senior Destroyer Captain in command of both D 4 and D 3 , as a result of which it was now clear that he, MLC , “ had not given sufficiently precise orders to the destroyers. Had this been done the accident should not have happened and this is entirely my responsibility”. There’s a bit of a mystery here because there doesn’t seem to be anything in the report which could have caused MLC to change his view about what had happened. Perhaps it made him realise for the first time the extent to which the destroyers had failed to obey the orders he’d been given them. But the Board took him at his word and formally “ concluded that he was mainly to blame for the accident” .
When the C in C Home Fleet ( Admiral of the Fleet Sir Colin Forbes ) got the Board’s report he categorically disagreed with it’s findings which surely must have been a very unusual thing to happen. In his own report to the Admiralty the C in C said “ I do not consider the Board of Inquiry correctly apportions the responsibility and blame for this accident” He found MLC “ seriously to blame for the indifferent way he had handled his force” but then, in a very detailed analysis of what had happened, the C in C said he “considered the Senior Destroyer Captain was principally to blame for the collision.” He had “placed his own interpretation” on the distance he should take station astern of the cruisers and he was not “ in close order” when he should have been.” He “ committed a grave error of judgement” about the station of his Second Destroyer group which included Imogen and failed to correct it when it was known the Cruisers were about to turn to starboard. It was this “ failure which was directly responsible for the collision”.
Clearly Captain D had not obeyed his orders and had handled the destroyers incompetently. If he’d done what he had been told to do and been where he ought to have been the accident would not have happened .But happen it did and MLC was the Senior Officer so, although in the circumstances it seems a bit Quixotic, he evidently decided that he ought to take “ entire responsibility”.
We’ll never know quite what lead him to do this but most certainly an important factor must have been that Captain D was Philip Vian and his ship was Cossack. Both were famous national household names. A few months earlier, in February , Vian in Cossack had carried out a daring raid and boarded a German supply ship, the Altmark ,which was sheltering in still neutral Norwegian waters. It was dramatically successful, much publicised and led to the release of nearly three hundred British Merchant Seamen captured originally in the south Atlantic by the Graf Spee . Locked up in the Altmark they were being sent back to German prisoner of War camps in what would have been a considerable propaganda coup for Hitler . The raid was ordered directly by Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty . He sent a signal instructing Vian to board the Altmark - a good example of one of his notorious personal interventions – and the incident was a rare national morale boosting success in the middle of the phoney war. Vian became one of his favourites.
I wonder what would have happened if Vian had not been Force C’s Captain D ? Did MLC refrain from giving more detailed orders ( i.e something more than his signal “ Take station astern” after the first run in ) simply because it was Vian who was in command of the Destroyers.? It’s a possibility. When the Destroyers were sighted in the wrong position and in the wrong formation on the third run in , just 25 minutes before the collision, MLC sent a signal giving his course and speed ( which Vian failed to follow ). Would he have done more if Captain D had been someone else especially since he knew that D4 and D3 had lost touch with one another twice since the first attempt to enter Scapa ?. Perhaps. Was the B of I’s conclusion coloured by the fact that Vian was Captain D ? Very likely indeed I think.
Their Lordship’s final decisions are not easily explained and not easily defended. They appear to have accepted the C in C’s conclusion that Vian was principally to blame and rejected the B of I’s finding and the mild rebuke they had proposed. They decided he had incurred their “ severe displeasure”.. They also decided that MLC had incurred their “ severe displeasure ” - perhaps they had no option given that he had accepted full responsibility. But although the verdicts were the same it seems impossible to justify what happened next . MLC and Vian were treated very, very differently. .MLC immediately lost his command , very publicly had to haul down his flag and never had another seagoing job. Vian, despite their Lordships’severe displeasure, despite having clearly disobeyed orders and despite having undoubtedly been the direct cause of the accident went completely and entirely unscathed . He retained his command of Cossack and of his Flotilla, was given accelerated promotion a short time later and continued his career unchecked in any way.. He went on to become an Admiral of the Fleet and one of the Sea Lords . Within a few weeks MLC was appointed Admiral Superintendent of Portsmouth and was retired, still in that job, as a full Admiral in 1945.
One thing comes across clearly from the archives . MLC’s prompt unqualified acceptance of “ entire responsibility “ for the accident was specifically and favourably noted not only by the C in C Home Fleet ( who, incidentally, continued to recommend MLC for seagoing command ) but by The First Sea Lord and even the First Lord of the Admiralty ( then A V Alexander, Churchill having become Prime Minister ). I can’t help thinking they knew they’d covered up in a big way for Vian and that MLC had been a convenient scapegoat who’d been hard done by. But did Their Lordships realise the extent to which Vian had tried to dodge responsibility and blame at the Board of Inquiry.? I think the C in C Home Fleet who had studied the papers in detail must have known, but what about their Lordships ?
There are one or two were relatively unimportant half truths in the story Vian told but on a number of crucial points his version of events just cannot be made to match the facts of the accident as they emerged from the mass of information given to the B of I. Most of what actually happened is quite easy to piece together given all the details in the RA 18 Signals log, Southampton’s Track Charts and Glasgow’s Log. From these it’s perfectly clear that Vian mislead the Board not only in his verbal evidence but also in the track/ charts diagrams he presented to the Board. To get away scot free after disobeying orders , handling his Destroyers incompetently and after giving a false account of events to the B of I was quite an achievement. What we’ll never know is if Their Lordships realised just how much of Vian’s evidence had been false.
Perhaps they knew and decided it was best forgotten because of who he was. After all there was a war on, it was less than two months after Dunquerque, heroes were in desperately short supply and he was closely associated with Churchill . And finally of course there was MLC’s convenient acceptance of “ entire responsibility”.