The Scapegoat by Steve Dunn

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  • Rear Admiral Sir Christopher (Kit) Cradock lost his life at the battle of Coronel on 1st November 1914. Steve Dunn, a businessman turned naval historian, seeks to explore Cradock’s character and thus to explain the decisions that led to the loss of so many of our ships and men in that engagement. In this Dunn has had unique access to family papers. The result is an entire biography from Cradock’s birth in 1862 and covering his career in a Navy of bone-white teak and gleaming bright work, whose main war activities took place on land in between Showing the Flag to over-awe lesser breeds.

    Cradock emerges as brave, disciplined, diplomatic and dedicated. He was clearly a deeply professional sailor and an officer of his time, ashore a hard man to hounds; always beautifully turned out; and good at making and keeping friends, including some in high places: good with people. Initially Dunn paints him as rather dim but Cradock goes on to show form as a published author on naval matters and an officer of initiative. Whether he had the capacity to anticipate the political subtleties involved in higher office we shall never know. Dunn paints him as a Beresfordite - but Fisher described him as ‘one of our very best officers’ so one wonders if Dunn sometimes over-eggs the cake.

    The master work on the battle, used by Dunn, is Geoffrey Bennett’s ‘Coronel and The Falklands’ (1962 and reprints), whence this last (unused) reference. Marder is good too and is also used. Dunn is a bit savage about Battenberg for whom Bennett records (again unused) laudatory encomia from Fisher, Churchill and Richmond; it is hardly rational to blame a man for having a nervous breakdown. Churchill should have dealt with that and put Sturdee or the Second Sea Lord firmly in charge pending a replacement. That Cradock’s direction suffered from the resulting muddle however is unarguable and Dunn correctly pins the tail on the donkey in the shape of Churchill.

    Churchill emerges from this (and most other accounts if less vividly painted) as the villain, a self-centered, self-serving bully who, as First Lord, never paused to understand the technicalities of the machine in his charge, sending ridiculous signals behind the back of the First Sea Lord, which exposed Churchill’s utter ignorance of maritime matters, and then faking the account in his published work after the war. We forgive him all this because in May 1940 he saved not just our island but the whole of western civilisation by his iron will; but at a detail, level he was up to just the same tricks in and after WW2, albeit with Brooke to sit on his head at times, and just as he used the dead Cradock who couldn’t answer back as a scapegoat in 1914 so did he treat Phillips in 1941, two brave admirals and many, many men dead because of defective maritime dispositions that did not recognise reality. Dunn is probably right about Churchill having his nose put out of joint by Cradock’s KCVO for rescuing the Princess Royal and having his knife into Cradock thereafter. A grandson of a Duke is not necessarily a gentleman.

    Dunn is good at the political and social atmosphere of what he calls the ‘Vicwardian’ Navy although he sees these aspects of nineteenth century society through mildly censorious twenty-first century eyes. As to exclusively male societies, the reader might like to try John Addington Symonds’ account of Harrow in the latter’s ‘Memoirs’ (1889; ed. Phyllis Grosskurth, pub. Hutchinson 1984). Cradock never married and thus was spared what could have been, in his day, the encumbrance of a family (to say nothing of a marriage punctuated by very long separations), but we are given a tantalising glimpse of the possibility of a daughter fathered on the Countess Fitzwilliam. The stretch about classics being the whole basis of upper-class education should be qualified by this not applying to the Navy, where capability in astro-navigation (which involves spherical trigonometry) and an understanding of guns, torpedoes and explosives had to inculcated.
    This background is painted in extenso, but that is probably necessary in order to illuminate Cradock the man of whom at a personal level Dunn has to make assumptions (but probably fair ones).

    When we get to naval matters Dunn is sniffy about the Navy which was actually very good at what it was paid to do, an institution entirely fit for purpose until the German threat began to make itself plain. This is where the dim like Beresford, and others with vested interests, could not grasp the urgent necessity for reform as organised by brighter and more scientific admirals like Fisher and Scott. Fisher famously described himself as ‘just as much a seaman as a gunnery man’. Dunn does not grasp how coal could not instantly replace canvas in a Navy with global reach, undertaking long passages and ideally independent of overseas supply, let alone unable to risk dependency on inefficient machinery of doubtful reliability. Coaling at sea from colliers is only possible in a flat calm; an isolated shore facility is open to an enemy coup de main. As late as 1956 an RN coal-burner had to hoist her forecastle awning as a sail in order to transit the Indian Ocean. Nor does he grasp how training in sail imbued an understanding and awareness of weather and sea, essential for survival, let alone victory. Various technical solecisms in the text caution the naval reader who otherwise must disregard the odd untrapped typo. In this Dunn’s treatment of naval matters is inferior to that given by (Captain) Bennett. Marder, a civilian and an American at that, manages to bridge the gap; Dunn doesn’t. However he does give us a good picture of the capabilities and limitations of the opposed ships and their crews, our scratch team against well-worked up Germans. But let us remember that Kent was reservist-manned, and she did pretty well in the second round of the fight.

    Although it is correct that the ships were starved of firing practice, it is reasonable to assume that as a minimum the guns’ crews were drilled on passage, although we have no record of it. It is also germane that there was no tactical precedent for an engagement such as Coronel; Cradock had to make it up as he went along. We see Canopus as obsolete, slow and a liability; but von Spee (see Bennett) was chary of her. So the jury must be out on the question of whether Cradock should have avoided action and fallen back on Canopus; if he had, he might have blocked Spee’s escape into the Atlantic. As it was there was a chance of damaging one or more of Spee’s ships and crippling that escape, and Spee was forced into an irreplaceable expenditure of ammunition. Spee himself had the option of refusing action and trying for an end run to the Falklands leaving Cradock wallowing behind but one can go on and on with counterfactual speculation ..
    Unfortunately a pretended familiarity with the dark blue part of the subject matter is sometimes extended into misjudgment, for instance quite wrongly categorising Battenberg, the man who took the crucial decision not to disperse the Fleet after its 1914 review, as ‘ineffective’. Dunn is a bit glib when he goes off-piste, for instance Keyes ‘blocking’ Zeebrugge, which he didn’t for more that a few days.

    Nevertheless we are taken very competently through Cradock’s career from naval cadet to rear admiral, with early promotion gained through his courage and leadership ashore in the Sudan and China.

    Dunn should be careful about transposing his own experience of strategy and leadership in business into the war environment, where there may be an immediacy and indeed possible consequences wholly absent from the commercial and industrial milieu.

    Each chapter is backed by notes showing what has been mined to create it. Relevant photographs (probably not many are available) are embedded in the text.

    As to Canopus, the reader can try accounts of her adventures by her Captain:
    and by one of her midshipmen:

    Overall, however, in spite of the blemishes referred to above, and others remarked by another reviewer, Dunn presents a good narrative and a fair analysis of the dispositions and events leading up to Coronel. The research is exhaustive. He makes a fair point that Coronel is not the main meat of Bennett’s book and that Cradock’s character deserves deeper exploration. The shortage of direct material - in spite of the survival of letters and journals from some parts of Cradock’s career - sometimes leaves no alternative to a measure of conjecture based on circumstantial evidence. At a personal level Dunn has dug much deeper than his predecessors, and a valuable biography is successfully illuminated by the naval situation of the subject.

    Four anchors

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