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Books, Arts & Curiosities – “If We Lose at Sea, We Lose…”

Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002

Page 33

By David Freeman

Churchill’s Anchor: The Biography of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound OM, GCB, GCVO, by Robin Brodhurst. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Leo Cooper, 320 pp., illus. Regular price $36.95, member price $30.


While accompanying the Prime Minister to Washington for talks with the American high command in May 1943, Britain’s First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, was asked by a journalist: “Can you give us anything on the battle of the Atlantic? How’s it really going?” Pound looked grave, stroked his chin, and chatter died away as the entire room listened for his answer. Eventually, after long consideration, he said, still with a deadly serious expression: “I can tell you this, my boy. I’d rather be Ernie King or Dudley Pound than that fellow Doenitz!”

Victory in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic owed as much to the strategic vision of Pound as it did to the thousands of sailors who waged the struggle on salt water. For it was Pound who understood from the war’s beginning and made clear to his colleagues and superiors the salient point: “If we lose the war at sea, we lose the war.”

Amazingly, perhaps, for a subject as well documented as World War II naval history, there has never before been a dedicated biography of the man who led Britain’s Senior Service during the war’s first four years. Robin Brodhurst, who is Head of History at Pangbourne College, has at last filled the gap with this admirable work made possible, appropriately, by means of a Churchill Fellowship. Agreeably, Brodhurst, like Churchill, graduated from Sandhurst and served in the army before pursuing his interests in writing the history of naval affairs. As the title implies, Churchill figures prominently in this book, over half of which is given over to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, there is no collection of Pound’s papers, the majority of which were destroyed after his death by his professional successors. Consequently, perhaps, there is little in this biography dealing with Pound’s personal life beyond the bare facts of his family which, from tantalizing hints, raise questions that are left unanswered. Still, Brodhurst writes in a clear style that ably carries his readers through sometimes complex matters. If there is a complaint to make, it is over the author’s hair-splitting attention to grammar in primary documents that results in a disconcerting number of “[sic]” abbreviations in the text. Nevertheless, this is a well-researched biography and a crackling good read.

Like the prime minister he ably served, Pound was American on his mother’s side. Elizabeth Pickman Rogers came, appropriately, from an old Massachusetts seafaring family, but seems to have been a much more impossible woman than Jennie Jerome. Ultimately, she proved too much for her husband, Alfred Pound, who preferred the quiet life of a country solicitor. Mrs. Pound’s kleptomania and excessive borrowing destroyed her marriage and poisoned her own image in the memory of her son. Her profligacy also meant that Dudley would throughout his life be wholly dependent on his navy pay for an income which itself was subject to the vicissitudes of the tight budgets of the interwar years. After his retirement Admiral of the Fleet Pound declined Churchill’s offer of a peerage in the belief that his family could not support such a position financially.

While he may not have recalled his mother with fondness, Dudley Pound inherited from her the same strong-willed determination that Churchill, Harold Macmillan and the now late Lord Hailsham all recognized and remarked upon in their own American mothers. Like those statesmen, Pound enjoyed something of a mercurial life.

Born on 29 August 1877, Dudley Pound began his naval career at age thirteen and followed the conventional path of the pre-1914 Royal Navy. He excelled on exams, usually coming first and marking himself out as a young officer of promise by the time he received his commission. During the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, he proceeded rapidly up the ranks.

In the first month of the Great War, Pound demonstrated his farsightedness by stressing the need for aircraft to work with the navy in anti-submarine warfare. Soon afterwards, he made Captain and was appointed naval assistant to the First Sea Lord, the inimitable Jacky Fisher. Thus Pound became an eye-witness to the ultimately combustible chemistry between Fisher and the First Lord, Churchill. From that experience, the future First Sea Lord took away what proved in time to be valuable lessons, both on the proper relationship between the professional and political heads of the navy, and on how to handle Churchill.

By 1916 Pound had taken up his first command, the battleship HMS Colossus. Attached to the Grand Fleet, Colossus led the 5th Division at Jutland, where she engaged in two sharp encounters: the sinking of the German cruiser Wiesbaden and the destroyer V48; and a severe shelling which took the arm of the range taker who was standing next to Pound on the bridge. Nevertheless, Pound brought Colossus safely home to Scapa Flow, having distinguished himself in the one great surface naval battle of the war.

Between the wars Pound served as chief of staff in the Mediterranean to the flamboyant Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, learning lessons in how not to behave in high command. After a stint as Second Sea Lord, Pound was given command of the Mediterranean Fleet, then the Royal Navy’s premier at-sea command. From this posting he hoped directly to retire, but a rash of serious illnesses among Britain’s top admirals of the day left little option but for him to become First Sea Lord on the eve of war in July 1939—the best possible man still available.

Brodhurst believes that it must have been Pound who ordered the famous signal to the fleet “Winston is Back!” but interestingly notes that the message was intended to be a warning as much as a report. Still, Pound had long ago learned just how to handle his new political superior. “Never say a direct ‘No’ to Churchill at a meeting,” the First Sea Lord would advise his deputy in 1941. “You can argue against it, and as long as you don’t exaggerate your case the PM will always let you have your say.”

Like his chief-of-staff colleague Sir Alan Brooke, Pound understood the best way to dissuade Churchill was to present a thoroughly researched, well-reasoned explanation of the disadvantages inherent to an ill-conceived plan. Exasperating as such exercises may have been for the military commanders, they testified to a leader with creativity, always willing to investigate every conceivable plan of attack. Pound appreciated this quality in a man and regarded inaction as the greatest failing that his naval commanders could exhibit. More than one captain got sacked by Pound for excess caution.

Brodhurst faults Pound for tolerating more interference in operational matters from Churchill than should have been allowed. But the author also admits that Pound recognized the importance of civilian authority taking precedence over that of the professional military in any democracy. Thus, the First Sea Lord went along with the dispatch of the ill-fated Force Z to the Far East in December 1941 which resulted in the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse as well as Pound’s very dear friend Admiral Tom Phillips.

For the same reason—the politics of the war dictated it—Pound bowed to the need to send the equally ill-fated convoy PQ 17 around the Scandinavian peninsula to Archangel in the summer of 1942, taking personal responsibility for the decision to order the convoy’s dispersal when he could not rule out the possibility that Tirpitz might have been in the vicinity.

The First Sea Lord did not believe such a difficult decision should be shouldered by anyone of lesser rank. While he may be criticized for being too conservative on that occasion, Pound could not realistically risk any of his ships at a time when the war had reduced the Royal Navy to such an alarming level that even Churchill showed signs of acute anxiety, as the Prime Minister admitted in his memoirs. PQ 17 lost twenty-three ships to German attack, but the all-important naval escorts escaped unscathed. The irony was that Pound had opposed sending out either Force Z or PQ 17 without air cover. But again, he understood the cardinal principle of civilian control over the final decision.

Pound’s great accomplishment remains his determination to concentrate almost single-mindedly on the Battle of the Atlantic. He had an excellent rapport with his American liaison Admiral “Betty” Stark, and the patience and discipline to work with his American opposite number, the prickly Ernest King, who preferred a Pacificfirst war strategy that would showcase the U.S. Navy. Eventually, Pound persuaded King to assign an escort carrier to Atlantic convoys, closing the “airgap” and guaranteeing victory at sea.

There has been some controversy surrounding the state of Pound’s health during the war. Brodhurst shows that he certainly was up to the task in 1939, despite arthritis in the hip that caused him to use a cane. The old sea dog had also learned a trick or two in how to cat-nap during heavy working days. Further, he had a habit of closing his eyes when concentrating. This caused many to believe that Pound was sleeping; but there are ample testimonials to his ability to come to life whenever naval matters were discussed.

Professional opinion at the time held that Pound’s final illness came on quite suddenly. A paralytic stroke during the Quebec Conference announced the presence of a fast developing brain tumor. As soon as he realized he was not recovering, Pound declared himself “unfit for duty” and submitted his resignation to Churchill.

The end came only weeks later in a London hospital, suitably on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1943. The Prime Minister led the funeral procession, behind the King’s representative, for the one man with whom he had worked on a nearly daily basis since the start of the war. Even in death Pound served Churchill, having left behind a well-groomed successor as First Sea Lord in the person of A.B. Cunningham.

Brodhurst concludes this welcome biography with the observation that Pound was not a Roosevelt figure but rather a Truman, and like Truman he stayed in the kitchen and he took the heat.


Prof. Freeman earned teaches at California State University, Fullerton.

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