The King’s Ships: “We may now picture this great Fleet, with its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, eighteen miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North the safeguard of considerable affairs.”
Irish Sea to Portland: Churchill Connections, 8-12 June 2019
The 2019 Hillsdale College Cruise around Britain was a unique opportunity to recall the Churchill saga by passing or visiting key places. These shaped and affected Churchill’s thought and engaged his pen. Concluded from part 2….
Herein we highlight Portland, from which Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sent the Grand Fleet to its war station in July 1914.
Douglas, Isle of Man (June 7th)
Enemy aliens interred on the Isle of Man in 1940-45. Churchill recognized delicate questions of civil liberties. He had mixed feelings on the question, and tended to advocate leniency and early release. After the war, Winston Churchill was named a Freeman of Douglas.
Liverpool (June 8th) – Holyhead (June 9th) – Dublin (June 10th)
Banished from London society, after a dispute with “a great personage,” Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill moved to Dublin in 1876. There they remained until 1880. Randolph served as secretary to his father, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, conveniently made Viceroy. Young Winston’s first memories were of Ireland, and Irish affairs were to occupy his time for decades during his political career.
Waterford (June 11th) – Portland (June 12th)
Many cruisers will visit Waterford for its famous crystal, but I hoped to see where John Redmond was sworn in. Redmond represented Waterford for the Irish Parliamentary Party for nearly thirty years, and his son after him.
In the debate over Irish Home Rule, Redmond, like Churchill, favored moderation, conciliation and Irish autonomy. Many years later in the Commons, Churchill said: “I always bear in my memory with regard, John Redmond…of the old Irish Parliamentary Party…pleading the cause of Ireland, with great eloquence and Parliamentary renown… [He expressed] absolute support and unity with this country until everybody said everywhere, ‘The brightest spot in the world is Ireland.’”
Off to the southwest of Ireland is the Old Head of Kinsale, where RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk in 1915. Again, Churchill was among the scapegoats, and my onboard lecture addressed the myth. Further on is Plymouth, scene of some of Churchill’s greatest speeches in peace and war. Finally we stopped at Portland, where dramatic events occurred as World War I broke out. Churchill vividly recalled the scene in The World Crisis (1923)….
Remembering Portland, 1914: “The King’s ships were at sea”
On the 17th and 18th of July was held the grand review of the Navy. It constituted incomparably the greatest assemblage of naval power ever witnessed in the history of the world…. The whole Fleet put to sea for exercises of various kinds. It took more than six hours for this armada, every ship decked with flags and crowded with bluejackets and marines, to pass…
As early as Tuesday July 28, I felt that the Fleet [at Portland] should go to its War Station. It must go there at once, and secretly; it must be steaming to the north while every German authority, naval or military, had the greatest possible interest in avoiding a collision with us. If it went thus early it need not go by the Irish Channel and northabout. It could go through the Straits of Dover and through the North Sea, and therefore the island would not be uncovered even for a single day. Moreover, it would arrive sooner and with less expenditure of fuel….
We decided that the Fleet should leave Portland at such an hour on the morning of the 29th as to pass the Straits of Dover during the hours of darkness, that it should traverse these waters at high speed and without lights, and with the utmost precaution proceed to Scapa Flow. I feared to bring this matter before the Cabinet, the Fleet, lest it should mistakenly be considered a provocative action likely to damage the chances of peace. It would be unusual to bring movements of the British Fleet in Home Waters from one British port to another before the Cabinet. I only therefore informed the Prime Minister, who at once gave his approval….
The Ships to their War Station
We may now picture this great Fleet, with its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. -We may picture them again as darkness fell, eighteen miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North the safeguard of considerable affairs.
We were now in a position, whatever happened, to control events…. If war should come no one would know where to look for the British Fleet. Somewhere in that enormous waste of waters to the north of our islands, cruising now this way, now that, shrouded in storms and mists, dwelt this mighty organization. Yet from the Admiralty building we could speak to them at any moment if need arose. The king’s ships were at sea.” —WSC, The World Crisis, vol. I, 1923