18 Dec 20
Posted by: Conor O'Neill

I will confess up front to not knowing very much about Keyes – which I suppose makes me a prime consumer of this book.  It is often claimed that we live in an age of unprecedented change or tumultuous times, but a look at the span of his career should give pause. From counter-slavery patrols as a Midshipman, through destroyer command in the Boxer Rebellion, into the development of the Submarine Service, amphibious tactics off Gallipoli, the beginnings of Combined Operations and then Commando Forces, Keyes saw more than his share of change and challenge.

Jim Crossley’s relatively slim (200 pages) and expensive (£25) volume thus has its work cut out to provide comprehensive coverage of his career.  The book is about the naval officer, not the history that he lived through and helped shape, and if you read or judge it with that in mind, it succeeds.  It begins with some fascinating and colourful vignettes of the 19th century service, through the eyes of Keyes embarking on his early career. The way they are describes does have a ‘Boys Own’ feel about it, and phrases such as “keeping order among unruly tribes” jar somewhat in the 21stcentury – it might have been what Keyes thought he was doing, but we should expect more detached analysis now. The book also provides excellent insight into the early days of destroyers and submarines in RN service, through his time as a destroyer CO and then ‘Inspecting Captain of Submarines’ –  a role created for him by Jackie Fisher.  Whilst the Second World War destroyer and escort experience is well covered, their forerunners from prior to the First World War have had less written about them and I found the descriptions of Keyes building and deploying his seamanship and leadership skills in these small ships fascinating.  Whilst it certainly does describe the events in which he participated, that narrative is shaped around his involvement.  The book is, accordingly, stronger on the state of the Royal Navy in the Far East at the turn of the 20th century than, say, Sino-British relations.

Equally, there are certainly more comprehensive accounts of the Dover Patrol, Dardenelles Campaign and the Zeebrugge Raid, but what Crossley provides is a study of Keyes’s psyche told through these events.  It is no hagiography and his weaknesses are laid bare – indeed at times it is astonishing what he was allowed to get away with.  His eponymous links with Churchill, well described through their correspondence, go some way to explaining both his behaviour and why it was tolerated to some extent.  The portrait of a man often utterly and obsessively convinced of his own position, despite evidence to the contrary, but who was also venerated by many of those he commanded, is a useful contribution to modern debates on military leadership.  It also presents a picture of an age in which serving officers could concurrently be members of parliament, a position he found himself in once recalled to duty in the Second World War, and in which the strategic conduct of a campaign was a matter for active debate in a chamber full of military experience.  The story of the attempt to censure Churchill over the war’s conduct in 1942 stands out both as a counter-point to the usual narrative of a nation united around Churchill and an example of Keyes’s hubris.

There are some lacunae in the book; the maps are bordering on childish and lack adequate keys, there are odd references to submarine ‘telescopes’ and an assertion that the battle between the RN and RAF “still rages today” which dent the author’s credibility a little, but overall it is a vivid picture of perhaps a lesser known Admiral of the Fleet, a look at the origins of some key elements of the modern service and something to provoke thinking on leadership issues which still resonate today.