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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p261  Chapter XIV
In the Mists Off Scotland 1917‑18

In no period of its history has the navy made more gigantic strides in improvement and efficiency than in the nineteen years intervening between the Spanish-American War and the World War. Not only have the battle-ships grown nearly two and one‑half times as large, increased their speed and the number and caliber of their guns, but endless modern inventions and improvements have been installed. Gunnery practise has been all but revolutionized, so great is its relative efficiency in comparison with former days.

A new spirit has been instilled in both the commissioned and enlisted personnel; undesirables have been weeded out and a basic policy introduced whose object is the professional education of officers and men to the highest degree. Its effects were shown in the exceptional efficiency of our navy in every type of ship and in every class of work that it was called upon to perform, from the very beginning of the war until its end.

That many changes were made as the result of experience and lessons learned during the war, goes without saying; but no navy has ever taken better advantage of the opportunity to be in a high state of preparedness and efficiency when hostilities were declared than ours did, for we had reasonable grounds to anticipate conditions.

It is true that when war was declared we lacked a balanced navy; that is, we had a number of certain  p262 types of ships, but needed other types and more ships in various classes to obtain a balanced ratio. No matter what recommendations may have been made to Congress by the General Board and the Navy Department after a painstaking study, we were still bounded by the limitation of Congressional approval and appropriations.

But under this limitation, ship for ship and man for man, we were just as good as any navy in the world. I know this from actual experience afloat, for I served during the last year of the war with the British Grand Fleet, which had had three years' experience before we entered the war. Yet within a few days of joining them we were absolutely able to conform to their practises in every way, and found almost no difficulty in doing so.

No ship, to say nothing of a division, squadron or fleet, is ever perfect. From the very nature of their intricate and elaborate construction, with the multitudinous mechanical installations, they will always need minor repairs and can be improved by the substitution of more modern inventions. But at the beginning of the World War our ships and personnel were in a state of high efficiency, and we can well be proud of them.

Ships, like race-horses and prize-fighters, train for the one supreme moment. Perfection and readiness are not accomplished overnight; it takes months and years of hard work and steady application to put a navy in fighting trim.

The proof of our readiness lay in the fact that throughout the war our navy was never called upon to perform a single duty or mission which was not promptly and efficiently accomplished, considering, of course, the force or vessels available.

 p263  It was necessary for the navy to expand to ten times its peace-time strength. Trained gun crews were taken from battle-ships at home and put on vessels going into the war zone. Regular officers and men were detached from fighting ships and sent to others, so that there might be a leaven of the regular service in all classes of vessels. As fast as trained men departed others were instructed to take their places, and I know of no instance when any aspersions could justifiably be cast on our trained personnel, or, for that matter, even on our recruits, with their limited experience and opportunities, when they were put to the test.

In point of fact I heard nothing but praise from those competent to judge, who were afloat and got their information at first hand from being on board ships and in position to witness operations, even though this opinion be at variance with that of one flag officer at least who saw no service afloat but has lost no opportunity to criticize adversely the navy in general and in particular, in print and otherwise.

Standing conspicuously to the front is the fact that on the declaration of war, the navy was ready to enter upon its mission at once, and did so. From the beginning until after the war was brought to a successful end, it fulfilled every single demand made upon it, promptly and in a complete and satisfactory manner. Almost at once we sent destroyers abroad to help combat the submarine menace; later we added patrol boats which were built in the meantime, and aircraft for the same purpose, all of which, in the end, accomplished most creditably that which was expected of them. When the first squadron of destroyers arrived abroad and the commanding officer was asked, "When will you be ready?" he replied, "We are ready now."​a

 p264  It is not my object to go into detail concerning the mission and operation of our various naval forces sent abroad during the war, including equipping, manning, protecting and directing the oversea transport service, which not only made it possible to land an army in France, but to keep it supplied. This in itself was an accomplishment without parallel, and Admiral Gleaves deserves the heartiest congratulations upon his success.

The mining force successfully laid a barrage of contact mines, under the most hazardous and difficult conditions, across the North Sea, from the coast of Norway to the Orkney Islands, as a barrier to the German High Seas Fleet and her submarines, all under the leader­ship and direct command of Admiral Strauss. The battery of naval guns that cooperated with our army in France and performed most excellent service was commanded by Admiral Plunkett. Admiral Wilson did excellent work in directing the European end of our convoy system. Our flying corps operated successfully both with our armies in France and Italy, as well as with the navy in its coast patrol in France and Great Britain, and with our naval force in the Adriatic, which took conspicuous part in naval operations in those waters.

And last but not least, was our own Atlantic Fleet, held in reserve under Admiral Mayo, one of the finest and most efficient officers in our service, in whom the administration, and all who knew him, had the greatest confidence.

A few months after our entry into the war it was deemed advisable to strengthen the Grand Fleet of Great Britain, and a division of battle-ships under my command was sent to cooperate with it.

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 p265  It should be remembered that all naval activities in time of war are more or less interdependent — all must be coordinated. All strive to accomplish the same end and lead to the same goal, which is to gain command of the sea, to make it safe and free to our own and our allies' ships and to deny it to the enemy and keep his fleet inactive as far as possible. There can be no question but that the foundation upon which the success of the war rested was naval strength, ready and efficient.

A Faithful Competent Aide Prior to joining my command, in communicating with the Navy Department, and in exercising the usual prerogative accorded to flag-officers, I signified my intention to nominate a flag-lieutenant and secretary, subject to departmental approval. To my surprise I was informed that they had not only been appointed, but were on board my flag-ship awaiting my arrival. This was very much out of ordinary.

When I joined my flag-ship and found these two young officers at the gangway awaiting me, one of them stepped forward and said, "Admiral, I am Mr. Ingram, your flag-lieutenant, and this is Mr. Lucas, the flag-secretary." With a perfectly grave face I looked at them and said, "Who in hell wished you two on me?"

Like a flash came the reply, "Admiral, we were wondering who in hell wished you on us."

"Shake, young man," I said, extending my hand. "You are just the one I have been looking for for years."

And for four years, during the war and afterward, I never had a more faithful, competent and efficient officer as aide, friend, companion and comrade, than Jonas Ingram.​c

The ultimate end of sea‑power is to keep the sea  p266 free for our own and our allies' fleets, and this we accomplished, so far as surface ships are concerned, to an absolute degree of certainty.

It is true that for a while hostile submarines were in the ascendency and came within an ace of accomplishing their mission and cutting the allies' line of supplies. But means were found to combat them successfully, American destroyers and chasers did their share, and in the end the subs, like other types of hostile craft, were overcome and their useful operations very much curtailed.

It is useless, in fact all but superfluous, for one to reiterate that which is so well known and recognized throughout the civilized world, namely, that it was the Grand Fleet which constituted the backbone of the structure that made victory a certainty.

Had the Grand Fleet failed, the war would have ended disastrously for the Allies within six months of its beginning. But fortunately — most fortunately — it had been mobilized a short time prior to the war and on the outbreak of hostilities took station immediately at the strategic bases in the North Sea and thoroughly and completely fulfilled its mission, which in the end led to the surrender of the whole German fleet — but more of this later on.

When the Grand Fleet is mentioned our thoughts naturally turn to its commander-in‑chief, Admiral Sir David Beatty, now Earl Beatty. A man of rare accomplishments, a natural-born, tried, trusted and gallant leader, and one who would fight at the drop of the hat, he never lost an opportunity to draw the enemy into battle, and fought it out to the last notch when the chance came.

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He has my greatest admiration. It was an honor  p267 and a pleasure to serve under him, and I shall always treasure the friendship and comrade­ship engendered during our service with the Grand Fleet.

When we joined the Grand Fleet in November, 1917, we came as friends and allies of the British. As time wore on, our friendship ripened into a fellow­ship and a comrade­ship, which, in turn, became a brotherhood, if not in reality a national kinship, and one which I hope and trust may last throughout enduring ages between our respective nations.

In my year's service in the Grand Fleet there was never the slightest friction, petty jealousy, misunderstanding, or any serious personal obstacle to overcome. On the other hand there was always the closest coordination and cooperation and an evident desire on the part of everyone to work toward homogeneity in our relations and our mission.

I have sometimes wondered if the example of these two nations working together as smoothly, harmoniously and satisfactorily as we did in the Grand Fleet, may not have been a consideration in making a unified command of the Allied forces under Marshal Foch, on the French front.

When it had been determined to send a battle-ship division abroad, and I had been appointed to its command, one of my first thoughts was what my relation­ship should be with the British commander-in‑chief. At my request no specific written orders on this subject, or any other, with reference to my actions, were given me; simply a routine order to sail on a certain date, pass through stated points at specified times, and eventually join the British fleet in Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. Naturally we discussed verbally with the department the many conditions which might arise.  p268 But my course of action was left to me, nor were any material changes ever made in it by any higher authority throughout the war.

I realized that the British fleet had had three years of actual warfare and knew the game from the ground floor up; that while we might know it theoretically, there would be a great deal to learn practically. There could not be two independent commands in one force if our work was to be harmonious, and the only logical course was to amalgamate our ships and serve under the command of the British commander-in‑chief.

This I explained to Admiral Beatty on our first meeting, and said I was ready to give him my loyal support in every way. I told him if he would confide in me in the same way and trust me, I would, during our stay in the Grand Fleet, adopt the same code of signals, visual and otherwise, even their secret code, which I promised never to divulge.

All of this was done, and more. As we got better acquainted, we discussed some of our confidential methods in relation to gun‑fire and other utilities, and gave and took suggestions freely from each other. We had a mutual trust and respect and desired to utilize every advantage that might militate against a common enemy.

Although we had been studying the British code of signaling while crossing the Atlantic, and constantly practising it, we still had difficulty in using it as rapidly and intelligently as we did our own. Each flag represents a letter of the alphabet, and still others have a special designation. The change we had to make was almost the same as if in reading we had substituted a new set of letters, for by long usage we visualize a word in print and the eye will at once catch the  p269 slightest mistake. But with an entirely new code, each letter or flag had to be carefully considered. Yet within twenty-four hours after our arrival we were using the British code intelligently and with confidence, and within three days we took part in a major fleet operation in the North Sea and had no difficulty in conforming to their tactical maneuvers, as directed by their code of signals.

At the end of a couple of weeks we were assigned as one of the two fast wings of the battle-ship force and held this position until the end of the war.

Our division took its regular turn in any operation that required its presence. On some of these occasions I served under British admirals who were my seniors in rank. Not infrequently other British admirals served under my command, and never once did the question of nationality arise.

Every movement order to my command that had any relation to hostilities that I received during the war after joining the Grand Fleet, emanated from Admiral Beatty and not from our liaison officer in London, or anybody else. We became in fact an integral part of the Grand Fleet. This is not to be construed to mean that we lost or subordinated our Americanism in any way, for such is not the case. Nothing ever occurred when such a condition was even considered or discussed.

It is not my purpose to go into the details of the various operations of the Grand Fleet after we had joined. From the beginning of the war the Grand Fleet had been operating against the enemy from its North Sea bases, had fought a number of major, and many minor engagements, and had demonstrated its superiority over the enemy by confining the latter's  p270 vessels to its own home ports. Only on one occasion after we joined did the enemy venture to sea in force, and then, on the approach of the Grand Fleet, made a hurried retreat to the security of his home ports.

When in battle formation the Fifth Battle Squadron, under Admiral Evan-Thomas, R. N., took position just ahead of the main body; the American Squadron a corresponding position immediately in the rear. On going into action the Fifth Battle Squadron being the fastest and strongest, would automatically take position in the van to lead into battle, and the American Squadron took the other end of the line.

On the one occasion while we were in the fleet when the German High Seas Fleet ventured out, we were trying to make contact with them, as we headed east. Our scouts reported the enemy to be bearing northeast, upon which our force was at once reoriented in that direction, the Fifth Battle Squadron at our northern end, the American, or Sixth Battle Squadron, at the southern.

Shortly afterward came the information that the enemy bore southeast, which required a reorientation of the fleet which put our squadron in the van and in position to lead in when contact was made. But unfortunately the enemy obtained information of our proximity and skeedaddled for his base, taking refuge behind his defenses. We returned to port; but I have often thought what a glorious day it would have been for the ships of our country to have led the Grand Fleet into action.

At any rate, we had at least one bit of pleasure and satisfaction. Almost every British admiral whom I met soon afterward referred to our position in the line, expressed his confidence and offered his congratulations.  p271 Such things best express the feeling which existed among us in the Grand Fleet.

It was the policy of the Grand Fleet to go after the enemy every time he showed his nose outside his lines of defense, no matter when or where. Whether he appeared with single ships, divisions, or his whole fleet, out we went after him, by day or night, in rain or shine (and in the months of winter there was mighty little daylight and much less shine), blow high, blow low — and chased him to his hole.

So persistent was this performance on our part, so sure were we to get after him, that toward the end he rarely ventured more than a few miles from his base. Immediately we would start after him, and back he would go into his hole and haul the hole in after him. Every inducement was offered him to come out. Inferior forces were sent down into the Helgoland Bight to induce him to attack; valuable convoys were dispatched, apparently without protection, and there were many other devices to tempt him out, but he was wise — or something — enough not to come.

This is not related with any degree of braggadocio, but because we had fully double his strength and felt sure of our ability to crush him in any general action. It is all but needless to add that such expeditions, on every occasion, were well guarded, and we were ready to pounce on him with unseen forces had he attempted to take advantage of our apparently small force of unprotected vessels.

Attacks by hostile submarines on our battle-ships were not infrequent, and we had several narrow escapes, due to prompt and skilful handling. On one occasion a submarine rammed the flag-ship New York, dented her bottom and demolished the starboard propeller;  p272 but there is every reason to believe that the blows of the propeller split the submarine open and sunk her.

En route to drydock to make repairs and install a new propeller, three torpedoes were discharged at the New York in rapid succession by a hostile submarine; but again, by clever maneuvering, she avoided them and escaped.

Once in midwinter, when we were guarding a convoy of thirty or forty vessels off the coast of Norway, a bunch of hostile subs fired six torpedoes at us. Again only our vigilance and instantaneous maneuvering saved us, but by a narrow margin. There were still other attacks by subs which necessitated quick action to avoid disaster.

There was quite an interesting aftermath to the sub attack off Norway. The attack occurred early one morning and scattered our squadron like chaff. All of this was radioed to England. At noon one of the hostile subs, homeward bound, reported its position to its Home Government in code, but we had the key and picked up the signal in England. We obtained a second position by use of our direction finders.

Late in the evening the same sub made a similar report which was picked up and translated, and a third position obtained. By combining all of the reports and plotting the several positions on a chart, we were enabled to reckon her speed, and as she was homeward bound, to calculate where she would be at six A.M. the following morning. This was done and the information radioed in code to our subs which were stationed in the Skagerrak, with instructions to attack. They sunk her. Moral — don't talk too much.

It is not necessary to go into detail nor lay too  p273 much stress upon the rigorous climate. Our latitude was north of that of Sitka, Alaska, or about equal to that of Petrograd in Russia. The weather was terrific, with cold, sleet, snow, heavy seas, arduous and dangerous navigation, continuous cruising in close formation at high speed, without lights, when the winter nights lasted eighteen hours.

There were also the dangers of mine-fields — our own sometimes as well as those of the enemy. But the whole fleet was always in readiness to put to sea on an instant's notice.

During a whole year no liberty or leave worth mentioning was granted, except occasionally for a few hours during the day at one of the bases. No one was allowed away from the ships after dark, nor for a period of more than four hours at a time during the day, and then only in the immediate vicinity of the ships, within signal or telephone communication and subject to recall.

All ships were completely closed and darkened from sunset to sunrise as a precaution against attacks by air and otherwise. In winter this meant from fifteen to eighteen hours a day. All of this in a cold raw climate, when at times it seemed impossible to keep warm.

Nevertheless there was no complaint. Every one seemed happy and contented and eager to go to sea whenever occasion demanded it, in the hope that we might meet the German fleet and do our share toward destroying it.

Yet we managed to find a great deal of diversion in the form of athletics, both ashore and afloat. The Fleet Athletic Tournament included track meets, rowing, boxing, fencing, tennis, golf and cricket, for which  p274 we substituted baseball. Out of sixteen participating divisions, the Americans finished second.

There were moving-pictures, music, small dances, theatricals, vaudeville, boxing and other forms of entertainment on board, and every effort was made to keep the officers and crew happy and contented. There was never any trouble at sea, for the game of war in itself is one of intense interest and ever-varying conditions, which require continuous and unflagging attention.

Every one on shore from the highest to the lowest, showed an unbounded interest in and hospitality to the Americans. My flag-ship, the New York, was known in the navy as the "Christmas Ship," since, when under my command as a captain, it had originated the custom of going into the highways and byways at Christmas time, collecting the waifs and strays who otherwise would have no Christmas, and bringing them on board after the ship had been elaborately decorated. We entertained them with a dinner, children's games, and a Christmas tree where toys were distributed and where each boy received a scout outfit and the girls a set of cheap furs. Here let it be said that, though this was done during my command, the conception and execution of the idea were entirely in the hands of the enlisted personnel, who deserve the entire credit.

Not knowing that we would be ordered abroad, we had laid in our supplies on the supposition that we would be in an American port, but Christmas found us at Edinburgh, in Scotland.

After discussing the situation, the men decided that a child was a child, whether American or Scotch. They asked one hundred and twenty-five children to come on board, preferably those who had been orphaned during  p275 the war — the poorer and more dependent, the better. They were assembled and brought down to the ship, about seven or eight miles, in motor-busses. Once aboard they were entertained, given a good dinner, and the usual toys and presents, and in addition each youngster was given two bright silver shillings — probably the greatest amount of cash any of them had ever possessed at one time. This Christmas fête of the poor children was much appreciated, and the comments of the press were very complimentary.

The people who had houses and estates within reasonable distance were more than cordial. We were invited to accompany British officers in their social diversions, and as we became acquainted, received personal invitations to social gatherings.

How on earth any one who has had any opportunity to judge, can say the Britishers are cold and offish is beyond my comprehension. You may not be embraced and received with gushing familiarity on first acquaintance — far from it. But when once you really know each other and you have been accepted as a friend and an intimate, there are no more easy, hospitable, cultivated people on earth, nor any whose intercourse is less stilted or more congenial.

During our tour of duty with the Grand Fleet, King George made several visits to it, and each time made an official visit to my flag-ship. On his first visit, when we were in Scapa Flow, he made a thorough inspection of the flag-ship and, having been an officer in the Royal Navy, was thoroughly capable of judging at first hand, not only as to our condition with reference to our maintenance, cleanliness and upkeep, but with regard to the salient differences in our constructive features, installations and utilities.

 p276  He is an exceptionally agreeable and affable gentleman, splendidly informed, democratic in his intercourse, without in the least detracting from the dignity of his high position. He loves a good yarn and can spin one admirably.

On his first visit, we were inspecting the engine-room and fire-rooms. As we came to the latter, the king said to me, "Admiral, your fire-room is as clean as a dining-room."

I replied, "Thank you very much, sir; your opinion is very much appreciated."

And they were absolutely clean — not a speck of dirt, not a stain, not a leak in any of the piping or connections — everything highly polished and sparkling, paint-work scrubbed until it was without a spot, and everything spick and span. As a matter of fact, our whole squadron was spick and span and there is no conceit in my saying so.

As we stood in front of one of the furnaces, I said, "Your Majesty, when you, as the Duke of York, were crossing from Halifax in one of your speedy battle cruisers, making maximum speed, you condescended to throw a few shovelfuls of coal into the furnace; would you consent to do as much for us?"

"Certainly, sir," the king replied, "and with pleasure." Whereupon a brand‑new shovel was handed him. The coal had been scrubbed and freed from dust and was systematically piled on the fire-room plates. The furnace-door was swung open, and in the glare and heat and roar of the fire the King of England shoveled coal into the furnace of an American battle-ship.

Amid the cheers of the stokers, the King of England rested from his work and looked up to see the British and American flags unfurled at either side of  p277 his picture on one of the bulkheads. This had been prearranged by the fire-room gang when they were informed of his Majesty's inspection. Later, by his consent, we had a moving picture made of his Majesty shaking hands with one of our enlisted men. The king seemed to enjoy this very much and asked the man a number of questions about our navy.

On each occasion that he visited the ship, after the official reception and inspection had been completed, we would adjourn to my cabin and over a pot of coffee and cigarettes, not only discuss official matters, particularly those relating to the war, but engage in general conversation, when yarns were swapped, in which the king seemed to delight.

On such an occasion his Majesty was accompanied by the Prince of Wales. As the steward offered the king the cigars and cigarettes I said, "I remember, your Majesty, when you were here previously, like most smokers, you preferred your own brand of cigarette, so don't hesitate to smoke your own if you so prefer."

"If you will allow me, Admiral," said the king, "I will take one of my own."

As he reached for his case and the steward offered the tray to the Prince of Wales, I said, "What about you, young man?

The prince smiled slightly and I noted my faux pas. "I mean," I said, "the Prince of Wales." Then as both the king and the prince laughed audibly but very good-naturedly, I still further qualified my speech by saying, "I should have said 'Your Royal Highness.' "

At once, to put me at my ease, the king said, "Well, after all, he is a fine young man, isn't he?"

"He certainly is," I said. "He's a peach."

 p278  That seemed to be the last straw, for both the king and the prince laughed outright. And the prince is a "peach" — a fine young fellow and a jolly good chap; and even if he were not the heir to the throne of Great Britain, every one who knows him would like him.​e I have met him on several occasions — at luncheons, dinners, et cetera, and have always found him responsive, full of good humor, dignified when in the limelight, but relaxed and very agreeable in every way to those around him at other times.

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There was an occasion when, standing on the quarterdeck of the Queen Elizabeth, Admiral Beatty's flag-ship, in company with several other admirals, I noticed the beef-boat going past. She was flying the beef flag. Each type of vessel had a distinctive flag, and that of the beef boat was a white bull on a blue field.​f

Pointing to the flag, I said facetiously, "This is the first time I have ever seen the royal standard of Great Britain flying officially — old white John Bull himself, on the azure field." They all caught my meaning and thoroughly appreciated it. But to my surprise I saw later, in the London illustrated papers, photographs of the beef flag, with my picture vignetted in the corner, with this legend: "A queer mistake of the American admiral serving in the Grand Fleet — he mistook the Beef Flag for the Royal Standard." Judging by the number of allusions to the incident from friends in the fleet, they all seemed to be very much amused.

Everything gets back to the king — news of the day, politics, incidents and even yarns — and this incident was not an exception. Shortly after the Armistice, when our squadron was to sail for home, the king came up to Edinburgh to bid us farewell. During the war, ships did not give full peace-time honors when distinguished  p279 guests came on board. The salute and some of the other ceremonies were omitted. But since the war was over and I wished to show my full appreciation of the honor of the king's visit I obtained permission from the commander-in‑chief to render full honors when the king came on board.

This necessitated the flying of the royal standard during the king's stay on board. As we did not have one, I borrowed one from Admiral Beatty's flag-ship, which, by the way, some one forgot (?) to return. In the quarterings of the royal standard, or at least in two of the quarters, there are some lions, tigers, unicorns or other animals standing on their hind-legs and pawing the air.

When the king came over the side, the marines presented arms, the band played the British national air, and officers and men saluted as the royal standard was broken at the main-masthead and my flag at the fore.

As we walked aft, I said, "Your Majesty, this is a historic day and a proud one for us, for this is the first time in history that the royal standard of Great Britain has ever flown officially over an American man-of‑war. I realize that we have been serving under your command in the Grand Fleet since you are the commander-in‑chief of the British Army and Navy, just as our president is of the American forces."

His reply expressed his appreciation and pleasure, and we adjourned to my cabin where, as usual, the conversation took a general trend.

But evidently the king must have had in mind the incident of the beef flag, for as he was leaving the ship, one of his staff said, "Admiral, his Majesty failed to see the old white bull in the royal standard."

"Tell him for me, please," I replied, "that I p280thought of it myself, but it seemed to me that there was no room for the white bull on account of the rest of the menagerie which appeared to have the prior claim."

Whether this got back to the king's ears I am not sure, but I have reason to believe it did.

On my return home, I was discussing our work in the Grand Fleet with a very high federal official, and he said, with just a little tinge of resentment in his manner, "Admiral, I understand that you are very pro‑British."

"Yes," I replied, "I am, probably more so than almost any officer in the service," and gave him a number of mighty good reasons why I admired and respected my late comrades in arms. But I added, "If any one informed you that I am pro‑British at the expense of my Americanism, he didn't tell the truth." For such is the case, and I am free to admit that next to my own country and countrymen I admire the British more than any others on earth, and have excellent reasons for doing so.

As I have already said, I hope and believe that the feeling of comrade­ship and brotherhood that was engendered in the Grand Fleet will last for many years, and that our respective nations will stand together in the future as they did in the World War, when the peace of the whole world and the independence of the individual states were at stake, and when liberty and righteousness were in danger of being obliterated.

It is interesting to note that with all the demands which were imposed on our battle-ships in the war zone, and in spite of the lack of opportunity for general overhaul and repairs, their maintenance was held at the highest point of efficiency. It is no exaggeration to say that had they been called upon to do so, they  p281 could have steamed round the world at the conclusion of the war and still have been ready to go into action, on refueling.

From a close proximity and personal knowledge, from active service in the Grand Fleet, and without the slightest exaggeration, I can state unqualifiedly that there was not a single division of battle-ships in the Grand Fleet that was considered superior to ours in efficiency. Not that ours were any better than many others, but that no others were superior to ours.

Nor would it be possible to have had under my command a more loyal and efficient set of captains, every one of whom was later promoted to flag rank; nor a more capable and energetic set of officers; nor a better behaved, self-respecting and reliable body of men. They were all an honor to our country and our navy, and if any credit be due to our force, it was earned through their instrumentality and efforts.

The number of ships in the Grand Fleet may be indicated by the fact that when entering port through a constricted passage, where it was necessary to form a single column, it measured about sixty-five miles in length. The Grand Fleet at sea was always an imposing sight, but more particularly during maneuvers, which were conducted in all sorts of weather, at very high speeds, not only as a matter of protection, but to lessen the chances of hostile submarines making a successful attack.

First and foremost, the fleet was thoroughly organized, and its plans and policies were well known to those who were entrusted with their execution. Not only did this apply to generalities, but every imaginable contingently which might arise had been given consideration and a policy formulated to meet it.

 p282  Time was a most important consideration, even the matter of several seconds being sometimes of vital importance when threatened by hostile subs. It required skill and a well-ordered plan to get the several hundred vessels of which the fleet was composed, under way, and later in battle formation.

For example, our base at Scapa Flow was a basin averaging several miles in diameter, completely protected by the surrounding islands, the channels between which had been closed or thoroughly protected. The one open passage was protected by barriers and mine fields, which, with the guns on shore, afforded ample security against submarines and small surface vessels of the enemy.

The main body of the fleet was anchored in Scapa Flow; every vessel had a designated anchorage; squadrons and divisions in line, ready to get under way on signal from the commander-in‑chief.

On a preliminary signal being made to go to sea, preparations to comply were at once undertaken and when the signal of execution was hauled down, each unit, in designated order, got under way in succession and maneuvered to pass through the entrance, the gates of which had been opened at the hour and minute prescribed in our general plan. In daylight this was not difficult, but on a dark stormy night, when snowing or raining, as was more frequently the case, in low visitability, it required skill and fine judgment so to maneuver that you would reach the gates exactly on time and avoid interference or confusion with other divisions. Yet so well was the maneuver executed that it required only a little more than an hour for all ships to clear and stand to sea, where a rendezvous had been appointed.

 p283  Not the least of our troubles lay in passing the gates, for once outside we were joined by our screen of destroyers, which always accompanied us for protection against subs, as well as to carry out their other designated missions in case we made contact with the enemy.

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Navigating the Pentland Firth, which lay to the southward and just outside of our base, was hazardous at times, even in daylight, on account of its strong tidal currents, swirls and eddies, and heavy seas when it was blowing.

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But under like conditions at night, with no lights, in close formation, with low visibility, that is, when it was thick, and other divisions were maneuvering, it required almost a sixth sense to avoid collisions and keep clear of the reefs and other dangers, or even the land itself. And if by mischance a vessel should strike, the rocks were unyielding and a serious disaster was sure to follow. Ordinarily capital ships are spaced five hundred yards apart in formation under way, yet when the currents here were at their maximum strength, it was necessary to take double distance of a thousand yards, and even then I have known ships to yaw to such an extent that they would find themselves a quarter of a mile out of position before they could be got under control and back into line.

While of course water is not compressible, still it seemed to be under a tension as it found its way through the narrow straits, and the least wind seemed to kick up a nasty irregular sea; and, when least suspected from its appearance, it would break and flood the ships. So much so that I have seen the largest battle-ships apparently sucked under until only the deck-houses, superstructures and other erections on  p284 the upper deck were visible, when they would slowly rise from their submergence and the water pour off their decks as it might from some huge turtle that came to the surface in the vertical. All ports and water-tight doors, even those in the deck-houses, would be closed, and the crews be compelled to take shelter until the danger zone should have been passed. If memory serves me correctly, on one occasion the sea, even in fairly moderate weather, broke over the bridge of one of the vessels and resulted in the loss of several lives.

Not the least of the dangers on leaving port on such occasions was that of striking an enemy's mine, particularly if any variation were made from the previously swept channel. While it is true that we used paravanes, appliances for preventing such disasters, the possibility still existed.

It was due to this cause that Lord Kitchener was lost. The vessel on which he sailed for one of the northern Russian ports left Scapa Flow on a dark and stormy night, when the navigation was particularly hazardous and difficulty would be found in keeping in the swept channel. Owing to this, the probabilities are that she struck a mine to the northward and westward, and went down with all on board, except a very few who survived.

Even when the fleet had cleared the Firth and was in the open sea, with so many other divisions bound for the same rendezvous, the utmost vigilance would still be necessary, nor would it be decreased in any way as long as we remained at sea, for the submarine menace was ever present.

Since the appointed hour for the assembling of the fleet was, in general, round or about daylight,  p285 should the weather be clear, it was a wondrous and glorious sight to see the various units going at top speed and making for their respective positions in fleet formation. Once in formation, there was constant maneuvering whether for practise or in anticipation of making contact with the enemy, and surely no more pleasing or inspiring sight could be witnessed than in visualizing and realizing the enormous potential power and force which it represented. It inspired a feeling of confidence and, under the leader­ship and direction of our tried and efficient commander-in‑chief, Admiral Beatty, it removed all doubt as to a certainty of success, should we meet the enemy's fleet and have a general engagement.

All maneuvers were on a strict war basis and required officers and men continuously at battle stations. This obtained until the return to port, whether it was a matter of hours or several days, without relaxation, and little or no rest.

From constant maneuvering, frequent change of course, zigzagging, and lack of astronomical observations or other reliable means of accurately determining our position, the return journey to port was not always an unalloyed pleasure. For again the channels must be swept of mines that might have been laid in our absence, and, since they were less than a mile in width, it was not an easy matter to find them if the weather remained thick and there was poor visibility. Time and again we have run for such a passage, or for the narrow entrances of the Pentland Firth at high speed in a thick fog, depending alone on determining our position by the intersection of lines given us by radio from the direction finding stations on shore. And this in the early days, when they were not so reliable  p286 as they are to‑day. Any material error would have resulted in disaster.

Once in port, it was imperative to refuel at once, and fully prepare for sea before officers or men could relax and obtain the much needed rest and sleep.

Yet I never heard a complaint. On the other hand, there was a spirit of willingness and readiness ever present, which in spite of its hardships, created a feeling of pride and admiration to be a part of such a loyal and enthusiastic organization.

In the heavy weather of the North Sea I have seen with my own eyes men of my flag-ship swept overboard from the upper deck by the heavy seas, when no effort could be made to save them, and they had to be left to their fate. This is in the balance against stopping, losing time and position, whereby the main force might lose strength in case of an engagement, or when slowing down might cause the loss of the ship by the attack of a hostile submarine. It was harrowing; yet the attempt to save one or two lives might indirectly result in a far greater loss, both in the possibility of the reduced strength of the force causing disaster, which, in turn, might be far more serious and result in the loss of a great many more lives.

Admiral Beatty was a past-master in handling a fleet, and it required a master's hand to do it efficiently. Both before and during the World War, in every instance where he had seen active war service he had shown his exceptional ability and acquainted himself with unusual success. He had won his spurs and been promoted to the grade of rear admiral while still in his thirties, and had been placed in command of the Grand Fleet by reason of his tried and proved efficiency. He handled his command of several hundred  p287 ships as easily as an experienced captain maneuvers a single one.

Always perfectly calm, confident, sure of himself, he inspired the same qualities in his subordinates.

He had the pick of the British Navy in the personnel of the fleet. Not but that there were not others in important billets who were equally as efficient, but he chose those to serve under him whom he knew could be relied on when they might be subject to the acid test.

It was a wonderful organization both in material and personnel, one that was sure to give an account of itself had we fallen in with the German fleet, and add new stars to his previously won laurels.

Thayer's Notes:

a A Short History of the United States Navy, p487.

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b This ship is never mentioned in Adm. Rodman's book, and I don't believe he ever commanded her. In the printed book, the photograph is tipped in facing p184. He's writing at that point about Pres. Harding's Alaskan trip, but there is no indication the Utah was involved. I've moved the photograph here because she was the flagship of BatDiv 6, one of the divisions serving in European waters during the war.

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c In World War II, Jonas Ingram would be the commander of the United States Atlantic Fleet.

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d Sic; but I've been unable to find the slightest trace of a high-ranking American naval officer by this name, including variant spellings, or indeed of any rank during this period. I still suspect a misspelling or a typo in the printed book.

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e On the death of his father, the handsome, easy-going, populist Prince of Wales would become briefly the uncrowned King Edward VIII, known for his mistress, his Nazi sympathies, and, fortunately, his abdication.

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f This passage in Adm. Rodman's memoirs seems to be one of the very few written sources for the "beef flag", which seems to have been altogether unofficial. FOTW Flags Of The World has a brief discussion with some further information. I've been unable to find any other trace of the flag online, including any copy of the London papers Adm. Rodman mentions.

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Page updated: 22 Dec 17