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ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET LORD TOVEY of Langton Matravers, G.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O., D.C.L.

(b. 1885, d. 1971)

JackLord Tovey's place in history as a great admiral is assured; the memory of Jack Tovey the man must not be allowed to fade. He was unquestionably a great and good man, with a tremendous personality, outstanding courage, great force of character and complete integrity. He had a profound belief in God and in the power of prayer, but was no 'God-botherer' sanctimoniously condemning sin and frivolity.

He had immense determination and his pursuit of any objective was relentless. He wasn't ambitious, but he took immense pains to master every aspect of his profession; he was a fine seaman and ship-handler and a great student of strategy and tactics. He constantly schooled himself to foresee every conceivable situation that might arise and to work out in detail the best way of dealing with it; in consequence he met any crisis with calmness and assurance and acquired the reputation of being an extraordinary quick thinker in emergency. He always did what he knew to be right and fought against what he believed to be wrong with absolutely no consideration of possible prejudice to his career.

He had no false modesty: he knew that he had the gift of leadership and he used it to great effect; men trusted him instinctively and would do anything for him. He understood men extraordinarily well, and to watch him as a Captain at the request and defaulters table was an education. He had an unerring flair for getting at the truth; he was sympathetic and understanding with men in trouble not entirely of their own making, and some of his punishments were certainly not in the book but were extremely effective.

He took endless pains in training young officers and ratings, and had an uncanny ability to assess their potential and their limitations and to get the best out of them, steadying the wayward and putting heart into the diffident and discouraged. He could allow for human frailty, but sloth, dishonesty and disloyalty he would not tolerate. Men found it easy to talk to him, and he would always listen to and respect the views of his juniors and encourage then to accept responsibility and show initiative. 'Back-seat driving" he abhorred, and showed astonishing forbearance in refraining from interfering unless to do so became essential.

He had no pomposity at all - even when he became a Lord. He had an impish sense of humour and loved nothing better than a successful leg-pull. Modest about his major achievements, he could be boyishly elated about success in small things. He had some little vanities and was always immaculately turned out. he loved good company, was a jovial host and a good raconteur, and enjoyed good food and good wine.

His appearance was impressive. Although he was stocky, he held himself well and looked the athlete he indeed was - he had been a schoolboy soccer international and played golf for the Navy. His face was extraordinarily impressive; he laughed heartily and had a delightful smile with a wonderful twinkle. When serious he could look very grim, and when he was angry - and sometimes he got very angry indeed - one could tell at a glance that it was time to stand from under. His wrath was devastating but usually short-lived, and if he blasted anyone unjustly he invariably apologised afterwards.

He had a pleasant speaking voice with an unmistakable ring of authority about it, and with increasing seniority he developed into an impressive speaker, choosing his words with care and delivering them with sincerity and conviction. His speeches were never too long and were always appropriate to the occasion, with a serious content happily spiced with a leavening of humour. On a subject that moved him deeply he could be inspiring.

He was very very British and had some rather old fashioned ideas about foreigners, but he got on extremely well with the Americans and had a tremendous admiration in particular for the Polish, Dutch and Norwegians who came under his command in the Home Fleet.

John Cronyn Tovey was born in 1885. His father was a Colonel in the Royal Engineers, his mother a Canadian from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He went very early to Durnford's, the well known preparatory school in Dorset, and stayed there for almost seven years. With his parents abroad, it was virtually his home, and he remained devoted to the headmaster, Thomas Pellatt, and his wife. That he had such happy recollections of his schooldays may in part be due to his prowess at games: he made some prodigious scores for the Cricket XI.

He entered Brittania as a cadet at the age of 14 and went to sea as a midshipman in 1901, having the invaluable experience of being the 'doggie' to the famous 'Tug' Wilson who, a few years later asked Tovey to be appointed to the Exmouth. Tovey always maintained that he learned a tremendous lot from his appointment although he did not altogether enjoy being a harbour watch-keeper in the fleet flagship; one anecdote he often told of this commission illustrates both his dislike of back-seat driving and his moral courage. He was hoisting boats when the Commander came and stood behind him and began giving orders. Tovey peeled off his white gloves, unbuckled his sword belt, handed them to the astonished Commander and went below. He never disclosed what the immediate outcome was, but it evidently did not prejudice his career.

The beginning of the 1914-1918 war found Tovey as the first lieutenant of the cruiser Amphion, the first British warship to receive damage in action. By 1916 he was a lieutenant-commander of the destroyer Onslow in the 13th Flotilla of the Grand Fleet, and it was in the Onslow that he so distinguished himself at Jutland. With only the Moresby in company - they had been screening the seaplane carrier Engadine - Tovey found himself near 'Windy Corner' where Admiral Evan-Thomas' battle squadron was heavily engaged with Hipper's battle cruisers and a large part of the High Seas Fleet. Without hesitation Tovey lead his two destroyers in to attack under very heavy fire, but although they created a helpful diversion they were forced to turn away. Some time later, intent on sinking the crippled Wiesbaden, he found that the German battle-cruisers had turned on a course that would give him a chance of attacking with torpedoes. As he gave the order to fire the Onslow was hit amidships by a heavy shell and only one torpedo left the tubes.

He found that although the Onslow was very badly damaged and barely able to steam he still had three torpedoes capable of being fired. He slowly closed the Wiesbaden and had just hit her under the bridge with one torpedo when a line of German battleships appeared out of the mist.

Although to do so meant that the Onslow would almost certainly be sunk, Tovey at once turned towards them and limping in at barely ten knots, was able to get within 8,000 yards before firing his last two torpedoes which the enemy had to manoeuvre to avoid. Miraculously, the Onslow survived, and arrived at Aberdeen two days later towed by the Defender. Tovey was awarded the D.S.O.

In 1916 Tovey married Aida, daughter of John Rowe.

For the next sixteen years all his sea-time was spent in destroyers and his first command as a captain was as Captain (D), but he held some interesting and arduous shore appointments which widened his experience: as a commander in the Operations Division; as Assistant Director of the Tactical School, and as Naval Assistant to the Second Sea Lord. Then in the spring of 1932, he found himself in a big ship for the first time for very many years. Used to handling destroyers, Tovey admitted to feeling some trepidation when he first looked out of the Rodney's bridge windows over the three massive turrets and saw the jackstaff in the dim distance, but he enjoyed the challenge of mastering such an unwieldy monster that was so reluctant to turn off the wind. Many years later, intrigued by the remarkable manoeuvres a good coxswain could perform in a motorcutter with a Kitchen rudder, he commented that it was a pity that the Nelson and the Rodney could not have been so fitted.

The memory of the part that the Rodney had played in the Invergordon mutiny a year earlier needed to be expunged quickly and completely, and Tovey was just the man, as Their Lordships had evidently appreciated, to achieve this object.

His impact was magical, and the Rodney quickly became a happy and efficient ship. He demanded the highest standard of every department and stressed their interdependence; no one was allowed to feel unimportant.

Tovey did not always see eye to eye with his Commander-in-Chief and was inclined to express his views forcibly. In later years he often quoted one paragraph from Joe Kelly's confidential report: "Captain Tovey shares one characteristic with me. In myself I call it tenacity of purpose; in Captain Tovey I can only describe it as sheer bloody obstinacy".

From the Rodney, after doing the senior Officers' War Course, Tovey went as a Commodore, Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham. It was at that time a huge command, being not only a holding depot for many thousands of ratings but comprising large training and new entry departments, the port division drafting and mobilisation organisations and the Chatham gunnery and signal schools.

During the Abyssinia crisis Tovey learnt all there was to know about the immense problems of manning the fleet for rapid wartime expansion.

He came to the top of the Captain's list after two years at Chatham and was promoted to remain in the appointment as a Rear Admiral. One of his favourite anecdotes hangs on this. Gieves did a rush job for him, and on the morning after his promotion was announced he was walking to his office, very conscious of the extra stripe, when a sailor failed to salute him.

Tovey called him over and asked him tersely why he had not saluted. The sailor happened to be a young R.N.V.R. rating.

"I'm terribly sorry Sir", he replied, "I didn't notice you".
"Didn't notice?" said Tovey, and pointing to his sleeve, "Don't you know what these stripes mean?"
"But of course, Sir - the lowest form of Admiral".

Tovey's first flag appointment was the one he would have chosen: R.A.(D) Mediterranean. Oddly enough, he had never served 'up the Straits' before, but he got to know the Mediterranean very thoroughly in the next two years. He enjoyed the spells in Malta in his attractive residence, Casa Pieta, and made very good use of its tennis court. Twice he was called on to take his turn as Senior British Officer in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War and show firmness and resource in handling some tricky international incidents, and troubles at the other end of the Mediterranean took him to Haifa; but all the time he was bringing his flotillas to the peak of efficiency, and at the outbreak of war in 1939 they were a magnificent fighting force. It was a bitter disappointment to him that he was denied the opportunity of leading them into action.

With Italy remaining neutral, the first nine months of the war were sadly frustrating for Tovey, as they were for the Commander-in-Chief he so greatly admired, Andrew Cunningham. The greater part of the fleet was withdrawn to reinforce other commands, and Tovey in the Galatea did nothing more exciting than escort troop convoys through the Mediterranean under no serious threat and exercise contraband control in the Aegean. It was a most galling experience, made worse early in 1940 when even the Galatea was taken from him and he and his staff were put ashore in Malta to await another flagship, his command comprising only the five aged destroyers of the Royal Australian Navy that were later to harass Italy's submarines so effectively.

In the early summer of 1940 it became obvious that Italy would soon abandon her neutrality, and the Mediterranean Fleet began to build up again and by the 10th June when Italy declared war quite an imposing Fleet, very different in composition from that of the previous summer, had assembled at Alexandria, together with a large French force. Tovey became Vice Admiral Light Forces and Second-in-Command, with his flag in the Orion and nine cruisers and a mixed bag of some twenty-five destroyers under his command, and his period of frustrating inactivity ended. But there was still disappointingly little action. His bombardment of Bardia, with the Malaya and the French battleship Lorraine, was spectacular but turned out to have done little damage. The seventh Cruiser Squadron engaged three Italian destroyers at extreme range and sank one, but did not please Cunningham by expending so much ammunition in doing so; reserves at Alexandria were negligible. The Italian air force was more enterprising than the Italian navy, and the daylight high-level bombing, was a constant nerve-wrecking nuisance as until the Coventry arrived on station with radar there was never any warning of an attack; the first thing the lookouts saw were the bombs falling.

At last, in July, the Italian main fleet ventured out when Cunningham was in a position to intercept, and there seemed to be every prospect of a major fleet action. Tovey led his cruisers straight at the battle fleet, coming under very heavy fire from the big ships and at the same time engaging four enemy eight-inch cruisers; but before he could press home the attack the enemy turned away under a smoke screen. So he was denied the chance of demonstrating fully the merit of the unorthodox 'end-on approach' which he advocated so strongly against the advice of the gunnery specialists who favoured keeping the A-arcs open.

That was the last action Tovey saw in the Mediterranean, though units of his light forces were always active and he was particularly delighted by the Sydney's sinking of the Bartolomeo Collini. In November he was appointed Commander-In-Chief, Home Fleet in the acting rank of Admiral and hoisted his flag in the Nelson, transferring a few months later in the King George V.

The Home Fleet's fighting efficiency was unquestioned, but Tovey appreciated that its maintenance depended on the morale of the officers and men being sustained, and their lot that winter was a particularly trying one; long periods at sea, often in filthy weather with the hope of action repeatedly frustrated; little relaxation when in the harbour, and for most the constant nagging anxiety about families in danger from the bombing. It was a hard life. When Tovey came under strong pressure to move to a shore headquarters in order to better control fleet movements without the inhibition of wireless silence, it was mainly due to this consideration of morale that decided him to resist the suggestion adamantly. He believed that officers and men were heartened by the knowledge that their Commander-in-Chief shared their dangers and anxieties and at least some of their hardships and discomforts. The right place for an Admiral, he maintained, was the bridge of his flagship, not a hole in the ground.

The Bismarck episode six months later confirmed his resolve to stay at sea. Once he had made his initial dispositions and sailed from Scapa subsequent movements had to be directed by the Admiralty, but he had complete faith that the right moves would be made, and they were. Nevertheless the strain on the Commander-in-Chief at sea was enormous. The decision when and whither to sail his main force was crucial; the news of the Hood's sinking and the damage to the Prince of Wales was shattering; and when it was clear that he had no hope of catching the Bismarck unless she could be slowed, he had to take the desperate chance of sending the partly trained squadrons of the Victorious in to attack at extreme range. The partial success of this gallant venture was followed by the news that the shadowing cruisers had lost contact, and for the next 31 hours Tovey had to live with the knowledge that his quarry, only slightly damaged, was loose in the Atlantic capable of wrecking havoc. It was his job to find and destroy her, and he had no clue in which direction to seek. When at last she was sighted by the Catalina of Coastal Command, he realised that he could not catch her unless she could again be slowed - as she was by the gallant attack by the Ark Royal squadrons.

Yet, after so many days and nights of almost unbearable strain, Tovey remained calm and clear-headed. Before the pursuing force caught up with the Bismarck he went to his sea cabin for a few minutes and, he afterwards revealed, prayed that our ships might be spared further heavy casualties. That his prayer was granted he had no doubt; his inspired decision to defer engaging until the morning may well have been the means.

It was an astonishing decision, made without any consultation even with his Chief of Staff, 'Daddy' Brind, who was amazed by it. But while everyone was tensed up waiting for the order to open fire, Tovey had walked the bridge wing and looked thoughtfully astern and appreciated that while the Bismarck was almost invisible in the murk, our ships would be clearly silhouetted against the streak of light running across the western horizon under the dark clouds; and he had complete faith that Vian's destroyers could shadow throughout the night.

His decision afforded further vindication of Tovey's insistence on leading his fleet at sea: no Commander-in-Chief in a remote operations room could have made it. And it demonstrated Tovey's moral courage, for had by some awful mischance something gone wrong the outcome would have been disastrous. But everything went as he had planned and the enemy was duly brought to action and sunk in the morning with no damage to our ships.

One problem remained: the King George V had barely enough fuel left to get her home at reduced speed, so Tovey reluctantly decided to turn for home as soon as it was clear that the Bismarck was sinking. He had not welcomed the Admiralty signal, obviously inspired by Churchill, that the Bismarck was to be sunk even if the King George V had to be towed home, and he was even more stung when he got back to Scapa by Churchill's severe criticism of Admiral Wake-Walkers (C.S.I.) and Captain Leach (Prince of Wales) for not pressing home the attack on the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Tovey maintained that they had acted perfectly correctly, and as he would have done, in shadowing rather than attacking, and when the Prime Minister threatened to have them brought to trial by court martial Tovey reacted by saying that he would resign his command to act as the accused's friend. The idea was dropped.

Tovey saw no further action himself during the next two years, but the strain remained intense. A great deal of it was caused by his growing concern about the lack of long range air cover and his conviction that it was wrong to try to run the Russian convoys during the long daylight hours of summer. He fought tenaciously to get his views accepted; the Naval staff knew he was right, but the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound seemed unable to get the Prime Minister to agree. Convoy PQ17, tragically, proved how right Tovey was.

In the long winter months Tovey hardly ever got ashore and there was little relaxation for him whether at sea or in Scapa or an Iceland anchorage. The summer was a little better: he occasionally got in a quick round of golf on the Flotta course, and the visits of VIP's at least afforded a change of company. Some guests - Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance - he found immensely stimulating, but there were one or two he could well have done without.

The highlights, of course, were the King's two visits. The King was extraordinarily considerate in bringing a very small staff with him and causing the least possible dislocation, but got through an extremely energetic programme and was a tremendous inspiration to the fleet. On the occasion of the first visit, Task Force 99 of the united States Navy was at Scapa, and the Americans were terrifically impressed when in really filthy Scapa weather which they had assumed would necessitate cancelling the programme, the King made the hazardous trip by barge to the Washington and, wearing no greatcoat or Burberry, spent an hour walking around the assembled ship's companies of the Force on the upper deck of the flagship in lashing rain. Tovey's intense admiration for the King was enhanced even more when, entertaining the American Flag and commanding officers, His Majesty didn't bat an eyelid when one destroyer captain exclaimed 'Say, King, were you really at Jutland?'.

On the first of his visits, the King gave Tovey the accolade of the K.C.B. which he had received in the New Year Honours, and on the second presented him with the insignia of the K.B.E.

The Prime Minister also paid two visits to the Home Fleet while Tovey was Commander-in-Chief. He brought an enormous entourage with him which caused immense problems. His visits were most heartening for the Fleet but very exhausting for Tovey even though Lord Moran tried hard to get Churchill to turn in at a reasonable hour. On one of his visits the Prime Minister demanded to see a demonstration of a strange weapon which on his insistence had been installed on the flagship's forecastle. It had been invented by Professor Lindemann who claimed it would provide the perfect defence against low level air attack. The thing, a sort of multi-barrelled mortar, fired a great covey of canisters which at preset range discharged small bombs dangling from parachutes. A sudden drift of wind caused the whole lot to drift back towards the ship, some getting caught up in the upper works and rigging. It was a good thing that it was only a trial and that the bombs were dummies. The marvellous weapon was hoisted out at the first opportunity.

Tovey was delighted at Lindemann's discomfiture. His unconcealed scorn for "the Prof" and his bright ideas must have riled the Prime Minister and may have been one of the cause of the deteriorating relationship between Churchill and Tovey which was further soured by Tovey's outspoken disagreement with the Russian convoy policy. But despite the Prime Minister's annoyance at what he considered to be the Commander-in-Chief's obstructionist attitude, Tovey remained in his appointment for the full two and half years until he was relieved by Bruce Fraser and went as Commander-in-Chief, the Nore, in June 1943. It was fitting that the destroyer which took him from Scapa to Thurso was the Onslow.

So long as the war in Europe lasted, the operational responsibilities of the Nore Command were very heavy, controlling the East coast convoys and the vast minesweeping organisation being two of the main tasks, and the command was very actively engaged in the build-up for the invasion of Normandy. For the first time Tovey had to exchange the bridge of his flagship for a 'hole in the ground' and spent much of his days and nights in the 'Tunnel', the huge combined headquarters deep under the grounds of the Admiralty House. But at least the long years of separation were over and the Tovey's could enjoy being together and entertaining in the gracious house with its lovely gardens and tennis courts, fortunately unscathed by the enemy bombing.

Much of the strain was lifted after VE day, but the task was little less onerous and demobilisation provided countless problems which Tovey tackled with flair. He was horrified to find, for instance, that Gunners' mates and T.G.M.'s were being classed at the employment Exchange in the lowly category of 'mates'; his strong representation to the Admiralty resulted in immediate change of title to Gunnery Instructor and T.G.I. He wasn't always so successful: He was furious at his inability to prevent invaliding, as 'below Naval physical standard', of a keen and efficient young signalman who had lost a little finger, and equally angry at the rejection for alleged colour blindness of a boy he knew would have made a first class officer. He discovered that the boy, whose colour vision was perfectly good for all practical purposes, had made some mistakes in the stringent Ishihara test which was no doubt excellent for testing the ability to match colours for paint mixing. Tovey demanded to take the test himself, and astounded the testing officer by being delighted at failing it dismally - which enabled him to point out forcefully to the Admiralty that if this silly test had been used in 1899 he would have been rejected, and he had never had any difficulty distinguishing red, green and white lights.

During this, his last active appointment, honours showered upon Tovey. He had been made a G.C.B. before leaving the Home Fleet. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1943, became First and Principal ADC in 1945, an Honorary D.C.L. (Oxon) in 1946. He was awarded the United States Legion of Merit, the Grand Cross of the Phoenix of Greece, and the Russian Order of Suvarov (which he never wore). In 1946 he was offered a barony. The thought of being a Lord at first appalled him, and when he got over the shock he was much exercised about what title to take. 'Of Scapa' was already taken, 'Of the Atlantic' sounded too bombastic, and he resisted a suggestion from his staff that he might emulate Lord Alanbrooke and become Lord JackTovey. Eventually he chose the Dorset village where he had spent his preparatory schooldays - Langton Matravers.

After leaving the Nore in 1946 he continued to work enthusiastically for the service he loved and the causes be believed in. Besides taking his seat in the House of Lords he was, amongst other things, a Church Commissioner, and President of the R.N.B.T. of King George's Fund for Sailors and of the Shaftsbury Training Ships, and was so busy that, although he had been elected a member of the senior Golfing Society, he hardly had any time for golf - or fishing. Regrettably, his tenure of all these offices had to end after a few years when he decided that he must devote his whole time looking after Lady Tovey who was becoming increasingly crippled by arthritis. Thereafter he took little part in public life; they travelled extensively in a vain search for a climate that would ease Lady Tovey's suffering, and eventually settled in Dorset. The Lady Tovey died in 1970, and Lord Tovey a year later at the age of eighty-six. He was buried privately in Swanage and a memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey in 1972. In 1974 a beautiful memorial tablet to the Toveys was unveiled in the lovely old church at Langton Matravers. Sadly, there is no heir to the barony.


[This 'obituary note' is reprinted with the permission of Ian Gardiner, from a family member's collection, to further knowledge of Admiral Lord John "Jack" Tovey. It was also printed in The Naval Review Vol. 68 No. 3 in July 1980]

Langton Matravers Church

Langton Matravers Church  
In mid-February 2003, Fran and I visited the church (left) at Langton Matravers to see the memorial to Admiral Tovey. It was a crisp, clear day with a cold wind blowing off the sea, so it was a relief to find the church open. The memorial tablet (right) to Admiral Tovey and his wife Aida, holds a prime position at the back of the church just inside the main doors.
  Tovey memorial

In April 2003, we received a note from the Rector of Langton Matravers:

Thank you for your interesting site about "Jack" Tovey. I am pleased you visited Langton Matravers earlier this year. However you failed to make mention of Tovey's Standard, which at one time was situated in Westminster Abbey (Henry VII Chapel) and is now laid up in Langton. It is hanging from the west (tower) wall nearly above the Tovey memorial. In addition the Tovey grave is very fine and may be found in the Godslington Cemetery just outside Swanage near the brick works.

I am myself compiling a little booklet about Admiral Tovey. It will be available in the church shortly.


Robert Watton
Rector of Langton Matravers, Worth Matravers, and Kingston

Robert Watton retired in October 2003, and we were extremely sorry to hear that he passed away in August 2004.

In January 2018, we received the following email from a member of the church in Langton Matravers - please get in touch if you are in a position to help:

I am a member of St George's Church Langton and for the last 59 years of my life I have been aware of the Tovey flag that is hanging from a pole in the church. This flag has over this period deteriorated to the extent that large parts are missing, I think it is being held together by cobwebs! As it hangs over our coffee serving area some are concerned about the hygiene aspect. More importantly, it is very in need of a more suitable loving home, and perhaps a refurbishment. We feel the plaque in memory of Admiral Tovey is sufficient and we would like the family to remove and take responsibility for his flag, of course as with every church we are short on funds and we do not have the money to maintain this important memory.

I hope someone will read this and perhaps we can start a dialogue ?

Take care, and best wishes!

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