HC Deb 31 July 1934 vol 292 cc2553-66

3.46 p.m.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir ROGER KEYES

It is within the recollection of the House that in September, 1931, some disturbance arose in some of His Majesty's ships at Invergordon. It is with great reluctance that I remind the House of that event, but I have been forced to do so in order to call attention to the grave injustice that has been done to the admiral who was temporarily in command of the Fleet at that time. The sequence of events and the time and dates are so important to my case, that, with the permission of the House, I will read a brief statement of facts. On Monday, 7th September, 1931, the ships of the Atlantic Fleet were assembled at their home ports ready to leave for exercises in Scottish waters. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Michael Hodges, was discharged to Haslar Hospital, and temporary command of the Fleet was assumed by the next senior admiral, Rear-Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson, commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron. He sailed on the 8th September, with the Portsmouth ships with the exception of the "Nelson," which was detained. The other vessels of the Atlantic Fleet joined the Fleet at sea, and Fleet exercises were carried out. These fully occupied the Admiral's attention and necessitated his presence on the bridge until the afternoon of the 11th, when the Fleet anchored off Invergordon. The newspapers were received on arrival, giving the Government's decision with regard to the reductions of pay in the Services. This was, incredible as it may seem, the first intimation received by the Admiral and the Fleet.

On the afternoon of the following day, Saturday, 12th September, the ships at Invergordon received the Admiralty Fleet Orders giving full details of the reductions of pay. On Sunday, the 13th, there was some disturbance on shore in the canteen. The chief staff officer of the Battle Cruiser Squadron was sent ashore to investigate, and he reported that it was occasioned by a few men who appeared to have had too much drink and that it was not of a serious nature. All the liberty men returned that evening by 9.15 p.m. The "Nelson" arrived at Invergordon that evening, and Admiral Tomkinson saw for the first time the Admiralty letter dated 10th September, addressed to all Flag and Commanding Officers, explaining the views of the Admiralty on the reductions of pay. This letter was of vital importance, and the Admiral at once signalled that certain paragraphs were to be explained by com- manding officers to officers And ships companies without delay. On Monday, 14th September, two of the battleships, "Warspite" and "Malaya," proceeded to sea in accordance with their programme. There was no reason to suppose that anything abnormal was occurring, and the usual leave was given to the ships companies of the other ships that afternoon; but in view of the disturbance of the previous evening special arrangements were made to land an additional patrol if necessary. At 7 p.m. there was some disorder in the canteen, and it was closed by the patrols and all liberty men returned on board, but in a disorderly and noisy manner. On the morning of the 15th "Repulse," one of Admiral Tomkinson's battle cruisers, sailed in accordance with the programme. The battleships failed to get under way, and Admiral Tomkinson decided to recall all ships in order that the grievances of the men might be thoroughly investigated. He despatched the Commander-in-Chief's Chief of Staff from the "Nelson" to the Admiralty to report what had occurred, and to request that a member of the Board of Admiralty might be sent to Invergordon at once to explain matters to the Fleet, as the inequality of the cuts caused the greatest concern and anxiety, some classes being treated most harshly and called upon to make sacrifices out of all proportion to those demanded of others. The Admiralty were in possession of all the facts the following morning, and telegraphed their approval of the steps taken by Admiral Tomkinson.

Thus far the disaffection at Invergordon closely followed the lines of that which broke out at Spithead on 15th April, 1797. Lord Bridport had just assumed the command a the Fleet, owing to the failing health of Lord Howe, and he sent his Chief of Staff to the Admiralty, and, in response to his request, three members of the Board and the Secretary, in fact, a legally constituted Board of Admiralty, including the First Lord, proceeded to Portsmouth and arrived on the 18th, in order, to quote from a contemporary record, To endeavour by their presence to restore order amongst the seamen and to investigate their grievances. I think it is fitting here to remind the House that 1797 was the year before the Battle of the Nile, and to affirm that although it was deplorable that the men of 1931 should have been misled into following the example of their predecessors in calling attention to their grievances in such a manner, there is no more loyal body of men in His Majesty's kingdom than the men of the Royal Navy. The lessons of history are invaluable if people will only study them. Lord Howe had warned the Admiralty that the men had intolerable and legitimate grievances, but the Board of Admiralty had allowed matters to drift. However, they faced the situation for which they were responsible, they did not seek for victims among the officers they had let down so badly, and Lord Bridport continued his distinguished career. It is true that, later, when the Government failed or were slow to carry out the promises of the Board of Admiralty, trouble broke out afresh. In one squadron at Spithead, other measures were taken by the Admiral in command with the most deplorable and humiliating results.

In these days of quick transport, it would have been quite possible for, say, the First Sea Lord, who by virtue of his office is responsible for the discipline of the Fleet, or other members of the Board, or senior officers whom the Admiralty might have delegated to represent them, to have flown to Invergordon and to have been ther8 within a few hours. After all, the Admiralty were entirely responsible for the situation which had arisen, and they alone had the power to investigate and deal with the men's grievances. The presence of their representatives would have been just as valuable to Admiral Tomkinson as Ns as that of the Board of 1797 to Lord Bridport.

On the morning of 16th September, Admiral Tomkinson had every right to expect the support and intervention of the Board of Admiralty. The action he had taken up to date made that intervention quite possible. I think the Service agrees with me that if the Board had taken bold and proper steps on the spot, the Service would be happier than it is to-day. No such action was taken. On the 16th, the Admiralty ordered all ships to return to their home ports. On the 17th September the then hon. Member for Central Portsmouth (Captain. W. G. Hall), moved the Adjournment of the House to discuss these events, and during the discussion he paid a warm tribute to the conduct of the Admiral who was in temporary command of the Fleet. That tribute was endorsed by the First Lord, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain), who announced that the Admiralty had conveyed to Admiral Tomkinson their full approval of the action he had taken. The ex-First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. A. V. Alexander, also expressed appreciation.

With the permission of the House I will read an extract from the OFFICIAL REPORT of 17th September, 1931. Captain W. G. Hall said: Another thing that emerges is that the Commander-in-Chief, in the absence of Admiral Hodges, who is unfortunately ill, acted with promptitude, with despatch, and with great common sense. We remember previous incidents that have happened in the Navy when officers in charge have perhaps not seen their duty so clearly as the present Commander-in-Chief. The First Lord of the Admiralty, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham said: I was particularly glad to hear the lion and gallant Member pay a tribute to the senior officer commanding the Atlantic Fleet during these anxious days, in the absence of the Commander-in-Chief, who, unhappily, is ill in hospital. The Admiralty have already conveyed to him their full approval of the action which he took and of his service during these times. The compliment which the hon. and gallant Member paid to him is one that is well-deserved and which, I am sure, will he most warmly received by the men of the Fleet. Finally, Mr. A. V. Alexander who was the ex-First Lord said: The sympathetic and tactful action which the acting Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, has taken is only what I have expected of him from my knowledge of him."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th September, 1931; cols. 1105-21, Vol. 256.] Admiral Tomkinson also received a warm letter of thanks from the First Sea Lord, and was personally commended by the First Sea Lord on 19th September.

Cases of indiscipline in His Majesty's Fleet are happily rare, but they have invariably been followed by a properly constituted inquiry. Although it was generally felt in the Navy and throughout the country that there should be a thorough and impartial inquiry into the events which occurred at Invergordon and of the circumstances which led up to them, no such inquiry was held. The First Lord of the Admiralty the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham had made it perfectly clear on 17th September that there would be no penalisation, a promise which my right hon. Friend would have most honourably kept, and one which his successor the present holder of the office declared in this House, in November, 1931, had been scrupulously carried out. Moreover, the inequalities of pay which caused the unrest had been adjusted, when the Atlantic Fleet sailed upon its winter cruise in January, 1932. Admiral Tomkinson's command went to the West Indies, and at that date he had not been given a hint of any sort that his conduct of the affair at Invergordon had had anything but the full approval of the Board of Admiralty, who had publicly commended him so warmly. On the 20th February, 1932, when still in the West Indies, he read in the wireless Press that a Rear-Admiral had been appointed to relieve him, and this was the first information he received that he had been superseded. He at once telegraphed to the Admiralty and asked for an explanation, and he was informed that a letter was on the way to him. He eventually received it. He was told that he had committed a serious error of judgment in omitting to take decided action on the 13th and 14th September, when dissatisfaction began to show itself among the men. If, he was told, the situation had been well handled on those two days, instead of being allowed to drift, the board considered it improbable that the outbreak would ever have occurred. In a letter of the same date he was informed that his command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, to which he had been appointed for a definite period of two years, would be curtailed by eight months.

I have been closely associated with Admiral Tomkinson for over 30 years. I have been with him, for instance, in a frail destroyer in a typhoon on a lee shore in the Formosa Channel; I have been with him in submarines in difficulties, in the heat of action at Taku, and in the Great War on several occasions; and I have always found him courageous and imperturbable. I know him to be a firm disciplinarian; who has never hesitated to do the unpopular thing if he thought it in the best interests of the Service; and, incidentally, he wears the gold medal of the Royal Humane Society for the bravest deed of life-saving in the year.

I can assure the House that he is quite incapable of having allowed matters to drift in the manner suggested by the Board of Admiralty, when he was plunged into a situation, which, but for their lack of foresight and dilatory methods would never have occurred.

The generous appreciation of the way in which Admiral Tomkinson handled this matter is in the official records; but there is another record at the Admiralty—the censure which I have quoted; and I submit that this censure is an outrage to justice and fair play in the absence of any judicial and properly constituted inquiry. Whatever opinion may be held as to what might or what might not have occurred or have been done at Invergordon—and there are two opinions—one thing is absolutely certain. The policy, which Lord Bridport carried out in 1797 and which Admiral Tomkinson repeated in 1931, was the policy of the Board of the day, and they were profoundly grateful to him for the way in which he handled the matter then.

But there are no two opinions in the Navy as to the impropriety of the sudden disciplinary action taken during his absence abroad and when he was not in a position to defend himself Moreover, that action was taken by the deeply implicated Board of Admiralty which had promised that there should be no penalisation. An accused has certain definite rights and privileges. And none of these have been accorded to Admiral Tomkinson. I have recently been reminded by the First Lord that Admiral Tomkinson and I had said we would be content to leave his future in the hands of the new Sea. Lords I fully appreciate their difficulty in instituting an inquiry into the conduct of their predecessors and of finding him employment after such a lapse of time and in view of his existing rank, and on that account I have confined my protest to the late Board's treatment of Admiral Tomkinson, which the present First Lord condoned. But it is not too late to hold a judicial inquiry at which Admiral Tomkinson can defend himself against the censure that he has received. Failing this, as I suggested to the First Lord only a few days ago, it would be only fair that this censure should be withdrawn and that he should be allowed to remain on the active list until he attains the rank of full Admiral—this could easily be arranged—a rank which he would have been absolutely certain to reach but for the premature termination of his appointment. I told the First Lord when I first heard of Admiral Tomkinson's supersession that I regarded it as a submarine torpedo attack without a declaration of war and that, if un honourable career was to be terminated, the officer should at least be allowed to fight a surface action and, if it was decided against him, go down with his colours flying.

I was told by the First Lord that the hasty action taken during Admiral Tomkinson's absence abroad, only a month before the squadron was due to return to England, was taken for Admiral Tomkinson's sake, to spare him the unpleasantness 'and publicity of certain questions which would have been asked if he had been allowed to retain his command. I know now that those questions were designed to bring about a thorough and impartial investigation into the whole affair. However, the questions were staved off. I pointed out that Admiral Tomkinson had nothing to fear from publicity and that he had courted an inquiry and had asked for it. It was the Admiralty that would not face an inquiry. No doubt I shall be told that I ought not to have reminded the Navy and the country of this distressing affair of which the Navy is thoroughly ashamed. Since I became a Member for Portsmouth, North, I have learned many things which were a closed book to me before, and I know that this is not the only open wound that has been left open by actions of the Board of Admiralty of 1932 for which the First Lord is responsible. While such things are possible in the Navy, the Navy can have no trust in its administration or faith in its future. I think the Service generally will be relieved to learn that such actions have not been allowed to pass unchallenged and will not be accepted as precedents.

I have tried every conceivable way of avoiding this and to get fair play for an officer who deserves well of his country. I think that this House is the proper place and this Adjournment the proper time to make one last appeal for fair play for Admiral Tomkinson. It would have been far easier to let this matter drop and to have avoided this ordeal, which is by far the most formidable I have ever had to face in my life, but I should have felt a coward if I had shirked it. I make one last appeal—and I hope that the House will support me—to the First Lord to give a proper and fair reconsideration to Admiral Tomkinson's case. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for having allowed me to raise this matter, and I thank the House for the indulgence they have accorded me.

4.11 p.m.

Commander MARSDEN

I speak in this Debate with very great hesitation, because the Naval Service has a wonderful standard of its own, far above that of any other public service, and, I think, far above even that of the political parties of this House, because the rights, And even the wrongs, of the individual must be subordinated to the good of the Service itself. We have had a most moving speech from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Portsmouth (Sir R. Keyes), and I feel that all who have heard him will realise the spirit which has aways led him to undertake forlorn hopes and desperate actions when there would appear to be no chance of success, and yet, on the whole, usually he has achieved his object. I am not sure whether his object now is absolutely to demand an inquiry, or whether it is only to put before the House in the right perspective the position of Admiral Tomkinson. I do not want to say very much, but two things stand out. The first is that Admiral Tomkinson received the approbation of the then existing Board of Admiralty. The Board of Admiralty are always changing. They are hardly the same from one month to another. But he received the approval of the Board of Admiralty in regard to Invergordon.

Again, it is perfectly clear that his appointment in command of the battle cruiser squadron was cut short. I do not know if the First Lord is going to say that there is a precedent for it, and that other admirals only served a year, or whatever the period was, but I do not think he could possibly say that if the events of Invergordon had not happened, Admiral Tomkinson would not have served his full time in command. I think that we may take it that it was the feeling of the Board at that time that the whole case of Admiral Tomkinson must be more or less mixed up with the events at Invergordon. The more I consider it—and I do not suppose that many days have passed since then when I have not spoken of it with officers concerned—it seems to me, that if there had been a free and an impartial judicial inquiry the people who would have suffered would have been the Board of Admiralty. It is ass extraordinary thing, and it may surprise military officers especially, that in the Navy we know the men intimately; but know little of their private lives ashore. We know that the men on the ships are well provided for, well fed, and well looked after, and the factor which brought about this mutiny was not their treatment on board but the surplus of their pay which they were able to send to their families ashore. It was that which determined the action the men eventually took.

I think that if the Board of Admiralty had been more in touch with the position of the men and had more fully realised the very close margin between the actual pay of the sailor and nothing at all, what a very little extra amount he had, if they had fully appreciated the effect the cut was likely to have, they would have approached the matter really in a better manner. If my information is correct, the actual information was not sent to Admiral Tomkinson's ship, but, I believe I am right in saying, to the flagship, and consequently there was delay in getting it to the acting flagship in which Admiral Tomkinson was serving. Therefore, the men only got the information through the medium of the popular Press, and it was almost impossible to represent the case truly, if indeed the officers knew the case accurately, which I very much doubt. If an inquiry had been held I am forced to the conclusion that a great deal of fault must have been put actually on the Board of Admiralty at that time. It surprises us now, certainly it surprises me, that such an inquiry was not held then. Whether it should be held now is rather a different matter. We have not very long memories, thank goodness, and my feeling is that we must use the mistakes of the past not so much for going back into the troubles of the past but rather to influence our workings in the future.

Another thing stands out about the mutiny at Invergordon. After all the talk about young admirals, distinguished officers with tremendous staff training, when a mutiny happens it is the old seaman who has spent all his life at sea among the men who is sent in command. It was Lord Howe in 1797 and Admiral Kelly on this occasion. When the men are treated by an admiral whom they can trust and respect, there is a wholly different atmosphere. Admiral Tomkinson is known throughout the Service as a most gallant and dashing officer. No question of personal danger or private interest would ever have stood in the way of what he considered to be his duty. On this occasion he may have made an error of judgment, and that must remain for ever, I am afraid, as entirely a question of personal opinion. Now that the gallant Admiral of the Fleet has ventilated the case in the House and brought forward the facts in a manner that they have never been brought forward before, and the House realises that whatever Admiral Tomkinson may have committed as an error of judgment, at least he behaved throughout as an officer and a gentleman. If the House is of that opinion, and this case having been ventilated, it might be as well now to let the matter rest where it is.

4.18 p.m.

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Commander Sir Bolton Eyres Monsell)

The hon. and gallant Member apparently instituted this Debate in order to criticise the Board of Admiralty for its treatment of Admiral Tomkinson. The hon. and gallant Member leas thought it necessary to raise very much larger questions relating to the lamentable incident that occurred in 1931. The House will remember that very soon after I went to the Admiralty, which was some time after these events had taken place, I took an early opportunity of coming to the House and asking that the Navy might be allowed to settle these difficulties within, by itself. The House most generously acceded to that request and, in fact, this is the first public reference that has been made in the course of very nearly three years to what took place at Invergordon in 1931. I think that the policy which I asked the House to allow me to pursue, and which the House agreed that I should pursue, has been amply justified, because although Invergordon was only a short three years ago the Navy has made tremendous progress in forgetting about it. There is absolute confidence in the Board of Admiralty as it is constituted to-day.

The discipline of the Fleet, I think, was never better than it is to-day and, what is perhaps even more important, the old faith of our people in the British Navy has remained unshaken.

My great aim ever since I have been at the Admiralty has been to try to help the officers and men to forget. The House will therefore understand when I say that I am going to do as little as I can to widen the Debate, but, on the contrary, I am going to contract it to the smallest possible limits. I am going to answer for that for which I am responsible and for which I accept responsibility, namely, what has happened to Admiral Tomkinson. The hon. and gallant Gentleman criticised the Admiralty for the treatment of Admiral Tomkinson on three grounds. First, that directly after the incidents at Invergordon the Admiralty telegraphed their full approval of his conduct; the hon. and gallant Member for North Battersea (Commander Marsden) also said that he, Admiral Tomkinson, received the approbation of the Admiralty. That is not so. What did occur was that a telegram was sent from the Admiralty on the 15th of that month, in reply to a telegram from Admiral Tomkinson, saying that he had taken certain steps, the chief one of which was to send the Chief of Staff up to London. The reply which the Admiralty sent to that message, 802—which everybody in the Navy knows referred to the specific information contained in the message—began: Your 802. Their Lordships entirely approve of the action you have taken. That is, the action contained in the telegram 802, and so limited to a very small extent. These things took place some time before I went to the Admiralty. The hon. and gallant Member talks about various letters, private letters. I have no knowledge of these things, and all I can say is that at the time of that Debate there was almost a complete lack of information available as to what really occurred. The next point which the hon. and gallant Member raised was the question of the relief of Admiral Tomkinson. Admiral Tomkinson, in fact, after Invergordon was promoted to Vice-Admiral and kept on in commission for six months on re-appointment. No great victimisation there. But the opinion of the Board of Admiralty at the time was that: It is in the best interests of the Service that ships which were concerned in these incidents should be paid off as soon as conveniently possible and should make an entirely fresh start. For the same reason their Lordships decided that it would not be expedient for the Flag Officer who was in command when these incidents occurred to remain in the same appointment for a protracted period. I think that the chief grievance of the hon. and gallant Gentleman is the way in which Admiral Tomkinson was informed of his supersession.


One of them.


If that be not so, I will pass on to the main question of the employment or non-employment of Admiral Tomkinson.


I have not raised the question of his future employment.


When I went to the Board of Admiralty it was in a very troubled state, so also was the Navy. I had many important and anxious decisions to make. Of course, the constitutional practice is for the First Lord to be advised upon questions of the employment of senior officers by the Naval members of the Board. It is one of their chief duties to advise the First Lord in those matters. Owing to the conditions at the time I went outside the advice of my ordinary Naval advisers. I sought the advice of senior officers in the Navy, whom I knew were considered wise and just men by the Navy and whom the Navy thoroughly trusted. On that combined advice I approved the letter of censure that was sent to Admiral Tomkinson, and I also approved that he should not receive any more employment. I received advice from a great many people, including the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in 1932. The hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested to me that this decision—for which I take responsibility —on the advice of my properly constituted Naval advisers, meant that an injustice had been done to Admiral Tomkinson, and he asked that as then I had an entirely new Naval Board at the Admiralty the case should be reviewed—




—that my decision should be reviewed. So anxious was I to see that I had not done injustice that I cheerfully assented to the proposition, and I have a letter from the hon. and gallant Gentleman which says: I have nothing but friendship and good will towards their successors— he was talking about the old Board— and after my talk with Tomkinson I am content, as he is, to leave his future in the hands of Chatfield and your new Board. An exhaustive and careful inquiry was made by the Naval members of the new Board and they upheld the decision of the old Board.


On what evidence was that based? Was it evidence that was given in Admiral Tomkinson's presence? Where did they get the evidence from?


The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows very well that an inquiry by the Sea Lords of the Admiralty is the highest authority that you can get. It is the supreme court of the Navy, and there is no appeal whatsoever from it. The new Board, whom the hon. and gallant Gentleman trusted so much, upheld the decision. I put it to the House that I am bound to accept these decisions, and I think the House will agree with me that these questions of employment must be left to the responsible and serving members of the Board who alone are in possession of the facts.

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