“Fifty Two Years in a Blue Suit”
- Robin Brodhurst
Robin Brodhurst is Head of History at Pangbourne. He chewed away at the ‘life’ of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound for many years until a Churchill Fellowship enabled him to complete what is clearly exhaustive research and present this biography. First published in 2000, it has now been republished in paperback by Pen & Sword. It is quite extraordinary that such an important figure had to wait for fifty-five years after the war to attract a biographer.
Pound was First Sea Lord from 1939 until his death in 1943, in an absolutely pivotal position in the crucial early years of the War. This period takes up, quite rightly, 60% of the book but first we are led very capably through Pound’s earlier years. From young naval cadet to early-promoted Commander and then Captain his reports show him as a brainy, far-sighted, thoughtful and innovative officer. He climbed the ladder entirely on his own ability, having neither interest nor private money; his virtues however were clear to his seniors.
As a Flag Officer Pound showed himself a driver, and to some extent a micro-manager, and sometimes given to unfair criticism of juniors who could not answer back, although he was willing, on advice, to make handsome amends for the last. One thing he could not stand, and that was want of initiative in Command - this, we are told, is what justified the controversial dismissal of Admiral North in 1940. Pound progressed through key appointments in the Admiralty - in the lean years of want of defence investment, particularly with Churchill at the Treasury - and at sea until, after three years as C-in-C Mediterranean he was translated to face the greatest professional challenge on offer in the Royal Navy, arguably the greatest since the Napoleonic Wars. In this key station and our most prestigious Fleet a galaxy of future stars served under Pound at various times - Creasy, Cunningham, Horton, Forbes, Fraser, Godfrey, Grantham, Layton, Somerville, Tovey, Willis, Vian and others all went on to key posts in the War and, deservedly, very high rank. The Mediterranean command provided a useful education in politics via Mussolini’s invasions of Abyssinia and Albania, and the Spanish Civil War.
The burden of work as 1SL was extraordinary because the Admiralty, unlike the War Office and the Air Ministry, was an operational headquarters as well as an administrative body. Pound’s apprenticeship in the Plans Division in WW1 and in peacetime Admiralty appointments came into its own.
The job was complicated by Pound having, as has been put elsewhere, to fight the Germans by day and Churchill - with his extraordinary working hours, so demanding on his immediate staff - by night. Brodhurst explains how Pound learned from direct observation in 1915 of Churchill’s final row with Fisher never to say ‘No’ to Churchill’s face in front of others, no matter how (often) hare-brained the action Churchill was peremptorily demanding. Instead Pound had his already over-worked staff carefully prepare positions that could be used to wean Churchill off his latest brainwave. For example, Pound managed to get Churchill off the idea (actually carried over from the Kaiser’s War) of sending surface ships to the Baltic where they would, of course, be easily cut off and destroyed. In the public memory failures tend to obscure successes (there are other described). Pound did not always win, and was often ill-served by Churchill‘s deliberate choice of a weak First Lord. Churchill’s obsession with what he mistakenly thought was valid ‘offensive’ action, and his ignorant interference in operational matters, sank HMS Courageous in 1939, losing Pound one of our only six aircraft carriers. It was Churchill’s misplaced insistence on their political value, wearing down Pound’s more rational proposals, that got HMSs Prince of Wales and Repulse sunk, their deterrent effect on our enemy proving a complete chimera and their presence completely irrelevant to the Japanese conquest of Malaya. By now Pound had to use a one-ocean Navy, and that severely depleted, to fight a three-ocean war.
In taking us thorough the major events of 1939-43 - Norway, Dunkirk, Dakar, Mers-el-Kebir, SEALION, the Bismarck chase, the Channel Dash, Dieppe, and the Battle of the Atlantic which Pound always saw as crucial, Brodhurst presents the facts as economically as possible so that we can make our own judgments. Brodhurst uses Marder (preferred) and Roskill as well as many, many other sources but steers his own path between them all. What is good is that although he presents his opinions he does not force them down the reader’s throat as some authors, keen to gain reputation by pressing some theory, so often do. He mentions twice how the Germans were reading our naval codes and the Naval Staff’s failure to recognise this risk and preempt it has to be laid at the door of its Chief.
One disaster that has to be laid at Pound’s door is the destruction of PQ17, which, like Force Z before it, gets its own chapter. Even here the detail makes it clear that the issue was not clear cut, and there is a question over whether absolutely crucial intelligence was correctly presented to Pound or correctly interpreted. I get the impression that Pound had a rather black and white view of the world and dealt less well with shifting uncertainties.
A whole chapter is devoted to Pound’s other war, that with the Air Ministry, and its failure sufficiently to prioritise and support maritime operations. The Channel Dash demonstrated the inadequacy of RAF training in torpedo attack, and it took Pound almost all his term of office to get effective long range support in the Atlantic - while Harris was lobbying for a bomber force which would consume four times our total capability to import aviation fuel.
Pound’s health while 1SL has often been the subject of comment. I and perhaps others have long been beguiled by Roskill into believing that Pound’s ultimately fatal brain tumour should have seen him replaced by Churchill in, say, 1942 or earlier; we are told, for instance of Pound dozing off in important meetings. Brodhurst demonstrates fairly convincingly that this was not what it seemed, but Pound closing his eyes so as to concentrate on what was being said in spite of his deafness, this probably induced by his lifelong addiction to shooting as a recreation. Pound seems to have had the gift, so useful to a sea officer, to a commander, and indeed to any immediate subordinate of the inconsiderate Churchill, of needing little sleep but being able to catnap at will. Pound would work after dinner very late, yet be up very early to get in some shooting before starting work. As it is, it appears that his fatal brain tumour only appeared, or perhaps came on to blow, maybe only a couple of months before Pound’s untimely demise. Pound’s osteoarthritis of the hip does not seem to have affected his hobby or his work - pain or not, he poled himself along on a stick on and off duty.
The occasional typo and other errors have survived the editors and the author has been at pains to take advice to ensure naval usages are correct. However it’s ‘IN’ a ship, not ‘ON’, and the ‘Purser’ of HMS Prince of Wales (p.184) would have been surprised to be so described, and (p.178 ) it was the Fleet Air Arm, not Coastal Command which had failed in its task, that discovered that Bismarck had left Bergen. The index omits some key words like ‘Dakar‘, ‘Enigma’ and ‘Shark’ although these topics are necessarily discussed in the text. The photographs - many from the Pound family, others from the Imperial War Museum - are excellently chosen.
This work is a well-compiled, and long overdue tribute to a man who put duty before all else - and expected others to do the same. In rehearsing Sir Dudley Pound’s career it brings all manner of detail that subtly changes even the well-informed reader’s perception of the first four years of the war at sea, while at the same time being remarkable sound and informative on the political and global strategic background, and on other personalities such as Brooke, Portal and the American admiral Ernie King. I warmly endorse this book for all with an interest in our naval history.