01 Apr 22

My PhD looked at the education, management and training of executive branch officers between the two World Wars, inevitably looking back and forward into those wars. Doing my research, I was struck by the paucity of contemporary diaries and the quality of the content. Thus I was delighted to be asked to review this book based on the diaries and notes of an officer, Captain (albeit twice a Commodore) William Carne who entered as a cadet before the First World War and retired in 1950. It has been compiled by Captain Carne’s grandson.

He went to sea at the outbreak of war as a cadet, but very soon cadets at sea were advanced to midshipmen, and as such he served first in a light cruiser (HMS Sappho) and then in HMS New Zealand, one of Beatty’s battlecruisers, and was at Jutland.

Leaving the New Zealand as a brand new Sub-Lieutenant he joined a destroyer in Malta for passage to Alexandria, and having never kept a bridge watch he stood watches as an understudy for “the first two or three days” and then kept watches on his own! This was good preparation for the next stage of his career; on joining a Flower-class sloop in Alexandria he was made First Lieutenant as he was the only RN officer apart from the captain. The other officers were RNR Lieutenants and his job required “an appreciable amount of tact”. Indeed during a refit he was for a time the commanding officer. How he achieved this is a fascinating part of the book. Lest it be thought this was unusual, he joined his next ship, a destroyer HMS Tactician coming out of build. As her First Lieutenant was sick in hospital he was again in the deep end. On joining, the ship was due to sail the next day and his captain on meeting him told him that he was going ashore for lunch and wouldn’t be back until late evening and he was responsible for getting her ready for sea which included settling in the final draft of sailors who had arrived with him. Having successfully got through that day at sea, he had to cope with an alcoholic engineer officer and had to land his captain into hospital.

The war over, he then was appointed to Cambridge University as part of the scheme introduced to complete officers’ education that had been cut short by war; he quotes extensively from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Scholars about the scheme. Thereafter, disappointingly, the inter war period gets a bare 16 pages with most of that covering the events around the 1937 evacuation of Shanghai. From that point the book is based on letters and notes forming Captain Carne’s service “on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean”. This covers the action off Calabria, Matapan and Taranto. He then assumed command of HMS Coventry and records his first 10 days which included the evacuation of Crete. The remainder of the book sketches his subsequent career.

The book is well written although the chunks of the book taken up with reproductions of letters and signals and what might be termed pseudo-facsimiles of letters by the author related to events described in the body of the text are at times disconcerting as they break up the narrative, rather than the more conventional technique of embedding the material in the text as quotations. Also included are photographs taken by Captain Carne including some taken at the Battle of Jutland.

What the book covers is fascinating. What is not apparent is how much has been omitted, or if this represents the entirety of the material. Captain Carne was obviously a keen and astute observer; his perceptions of the Geddes axe and the Invergordon mutiny for example would have been extremely interesting. As a result, I was left with a feeling of incompleteness. A pity, it could have been an important contribution to the 20th century history of the Royal Navy.