Inglorious history can teach us about heroism

We prefer our heroes untarnished.  And few match the heroism of Winston Churchill.  But a recent report in the Times reminds us of the inevitability of human frailty and the consequences of keeping it under wraps.

During the second world war, Britain’s greatest single loss of life at sea was the sinking on 8 June 1940 of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her escorting destroyers Ardent and Acasta as they returned home from a failed expedition to Norway.  There were 40 survivors from 1,559 crewmen.

The official explanation was that Glorious was detached from the safety of the main fleet because she was short of fuel, later supplemented by an improbable suggestion that her captain dashed home in order to hasten the court-martial of one of his officers.

But intrepid sleuthing by Ben Barker, the grandson of Ardent’s captain, suggests another explanation.  As part of the planning for Allied intervention in Norway, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed aerial mining of harbours in neutral Sweden to disrupt exports of iron ore to Germany.  The naval staff were doubtful and dragged their heels with planning.  When Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940, he insisted the plan go forward.  Barker argues that Glorious was urgently sent back to port in order to meet the necessary timetable.

He has assembled an impressive body of circumstantial evidence to support his case (it certainly seems more plausible than the official explanation).

And for anyone who has worked in government, the official response to the sinking has  a familiar ring.

A Board of Inquiry was held 18 days after the sinkings.  But it did not take evidence from the responsible officer, Vice Admiral Air Lionel Wells, the chief of naval aviation and the man who had ordered Glorious home (or indulged her captain in his intemperate zeal for naval discipline, if you prefer).  His failure to be scapegoated by the inquiry  hardly suggests powerful friends, as he was then sidelined for the rest of the war.  It seems rather more indicative of a bureaucracy looking to avoid inconvenient transparency.

War is a rough business and there is little room at the time to make voluntary admissions of error or embarrassment.  And who wants to rake these things up afterwards, particularly if they might sound a discordant note in the Churchillian symphony.

But, as Barker points out, this has consequences.  Recommendations of posthumous Victoria Crosses for the captains of Ardent and Acasta were rejected, despite their uncompromising, indeed suicidal, gallantry in trying to protect Glorious against the overwhelming firepower of two German battlecruisers.

Narratives are easier when they are tidy and consistent.  But we understand a little more if we recognise that commanding figures like Churchill are not immune from error, inglorious blame shifting and ex-post rationalisation.  And perhaps some of the responsibility can be taken off the shoulders of dead men.

3 thoughts on “Inglorious history can teach us about heroism

  1. Shows the tension between Bureaucrats, who generally want to learn from the mistake (look at the speed of innovation during wartime); and news media who want someone to blame, with bonus points if they get fired. If Media concentrated on the facts, (e.g. what was the actual fuel supply) not “possible” scenarios with little supporting evidence, we might have more transparent bureaucrats. Do you really believe we all think Churchill never made a mistake? His career was full of mistakes. Fortunately he survived their consequences.

    Secondly, the Navy had advocated against Churchill’s plan, so the possible learnings were “Churchill was wrong” – which he & the Navy knew- or running into 2 battleships, which was bad luck in an uncertain mix of ships in the North Sea. Making a public spectacle of the error would not have helped the war effort at all. Yet the journalist puts it down to “inglorious blame shifting & ex post rationalisation”, with no evidence for those motives at all. Except to create controversy.

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