Q: What can you tell me about Churchill’s order for “Utmost Fish” in 1939. What did this have to do with his role as First Lord of the Admiralty?” —L.S, Spokane, Wash.
A: It had nothing to do with his role. It was characteristic of his attention to detail, and willingness to stray outside his limits.
Hillsdale College’s “The Churchill Documents,” Vol. 14, for September 1939-May 1940, carries a recollection by Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare. Shakespeare (1893-1980) was a Liberal MP, 1923-45. He served Churchill as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs from 1940 to 1942. This note is from his diary for 18 October 1939 in his book, “Let Candles Be Brought In,” pages 230-2):
One morning I found on my desk a pink tab with a memo to this effect: “I am concerned about the shortage of fish. Parliamentary Secretary will immediately take up the matter with the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff and the head of the Mine Sweeping Division to see if any trawlers can be released for fishing. We must have a policy of “utmost fish.” Parliamentary Secretary will report to me by midnight with his proposals. WSC.
This was indeed a poser. I had no knowledge of, or responsibility for, the fishing industry. That question came within the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I got busy, however, and arranged with the Ministry of Agriculture to call a conference of trawler owners from Hull, Grimsby and elsewhere, and Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff—Rear-Admiral Harold Burrough, whose name later in the war was brilliantly associated with the Malta convoys—came to the rescue by releasing a few trawlers.
After many hours of intensive study of the problem, I dictated a comprehensive memorandum on the essential facts of the industry, the number of trawlers and drifters still used for fishing and the numbers taken over by the Admiralty, daily catches, difficulties of protecting fishing fleets from aircraft and mines, and I concluded by suggesting the formation of a new Fishing Promotion Council, composed of representatives of the Admiralty, Ministry of Agriculture, trawler and drifter owners, and of the trades unions concerned.
I completed the memorandum just after midnight and took it into the presence. Churchill read it, asked numerous questions and concurred in the formation of the new council and instructed me to constitute it forthwith. He also asked me to approach Ernest Bevin [Minister of Labour] to secure his interest….So a policy of “utmost fish” was fostered by the Admiralty in wartime.
Churchill Trolls for Answers
As a result of his enquiries, Churchill convened a meeting. (Churchill papers, 19/3) 18 October 1939
I have asked the Minister of Agriculture to bring Mr. Ernest Bevin and his deputation to the Admiralty at 4.15 o’clock tomorrow after they have explored the ground among themselves….I will preside myself.
Meanwhile Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff, Director of the Trade Division and Controller or Deputy-Controller should together with Financial Secretary meet together this evening to work out a plan, the object of which is the Utmost Fish, subject to Naval necessity. The immediate loss arising from our requisition should be shared between ports… the fact that a port has built the best kind of trawlers must not lead to its being the worst sufferer.
Side by side with this equalisation process a type of trawler which can be built as quickly as possible, and will serve its purpose, should be given facilities in the ship-yards. As soon as these trawlers flow in, they can either be added to the various ports, or else be given to the ports from whom the chief requisition has been made, the equalising trawlers being restored after temporary use – this is for local opinion to decide. It is vital to keep the fish trade going, and we must fight for this part of our food supply as hard as we do against the U-boats.
No Carping Around
Norman Rose in Churchill: An Unruly Life, 254, is rather good on this:
Of course, not all were happy with Churchill’s forays into spheres beyond his immediate domain. His “Utmost Fish” order—intended to resolve the shortage of fresh fish—being a case in point. This carping did not deter him.
Professor Rose was not floundering around when he wrote that.
Of course it wasn’t his sole point. But the story is no old cod, for sure.