Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, GCMG, GCVO, KCIE, CB, DLJP 1872-1949

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of September 1975

LIONEL HALSEY served in several posts closely associated with the RAN during the years immediately prior to, and following, its birth. To his distinction of having commanded the Australian Fleet is added the unusual feature of his having refused the post of First Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board.

Lionel Halsey was born in London on 26th February 1872, the fourth son of Sir Frederick Halsey, first Baronet. Halsey’s first seagoing ship was HMS Agincourt, described officially as an ‘iron ship, armour plated’. Lionel joined as a Naval Cadet when Agincourt was serving as flagship of the second in command, Channel Fleet.

Shortly after his promotion to Midshipman, in July 1887, Halsey sailed for the Cape of Good Hope, joining HMS Raleigh on arrival. The cruiser’s prime motive power was her sails, although she had auxiliary steam power. Raleigh was Flagship on the Cape of Good Hope and West Africa Station.

During his service in Raleigh, Halsey cruised extensively up the West Coast of Africa. A fellow Midshipman was Roger Keyes, with whom Halsey formed what was to become a lifelong friendship.

Upon return to the United Kingdom, Halsey underwent the customary series of courses for promotion to Lieutenant and, in September 1892, was appointed to the cruiser HMS Mercury, serving on the China Station. One year later Halsey received a coveted appointment to the battleship Ramillies, Fleet Flagship in the Mediterranean.

Whilst a Lieutenant, Halsey served for a short period in the Royal Yacht, in the Portland based boys’ training ship Boscawen, and for two years as Flag Lieutenant to Vice- Admiral Sir James E. Erskine, Commanderin- Chief on the North America and West Indies Station.

In September 1897, Halsey was appointed to the new cruiser HMS Powerful, for service on the China Station. Although the commission in China involved nothing unusual so far as Halsey was concerned, during her return voyage to the United Kingdom Powerful was diverted to South Africa to help cope with the Boer Rebellion. In October 1899, Halsey himself was detached from his ship in command of a 4.7 inch naval gun that became part of Princess Victoria Battery, Cover Hill Redoubt, during the Siege of Ladysmith. Later in the Siege, Halsey became Executive Officer of the naval force involved. His service at Ladysmith earned Halsey a special promotion to Commander after less than eight years as a Lieutenant.

Halsey’s first appointment as a Commander was Executive Officer of the cruiser HMS Diana, Mediterranean Fleet. In 1902, Halsey accepted the invitation of Captain C.E. Madden to become Executive Officer of the cruiser HMS Good Hope, due to commission as Flagship of Rear-Admiral Wilmot Fawkes, commanding First Cruiser Squadron.

In his post as Executive Officer, Halsey’s strongest qualities – leadership and administrative ability – were those most needed. Good Hope’s first duty was to take Joseph Chamberlain to South Africa for negotiations with the Boers. Service in the Mediterranean and the West Indies followed.

After two years in Good Hope, Halsey was appointed Naval Member, Admiralty Volunteer Committee, involved with the running of the RNVR. In this post, Halsey’s ability to get on with and understand the problems and ambitions of people of all ages and backgrounds proved invaluable.

In June 1905, Halsey was made post and became a full Captain. Two months later, he accepted the invitation of Vice-Admiral Wilmot Fawkes to become Flag Captain in Halsey’s old ship Powerful. The cruiser was commissioning as Flagship on the Australia Station.

Before the ship sailed, Halsey married a descendant of the legendary Sir Richard Grenville of HMS Revenge. This was Morwenna, the youngest daughter of Major Bevil Grenville. They were to have two daughters, Ruth and Joan. The family accompanied Halsey from posting to posting as the opportunity offered, until a permanent home was acquired (in 1918) at Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

The Halseys found life on the Australia Station most enjoyable. They established a home at Sydney, the Squadron’s main base, and travelled to other parts of the continent, including a short stay in Tasmania. Halsey’s naval duties involved regular cruises around the Continent and to neighbouring areas.

Halsey’s post as Flag Captain involved him in the work of Chief of Staff. The Squadron consisted of about nine cruisers. At the time Halsey commissioned Powerful, these included the RN-manned Third Class Cruisers Mildura, Katoomba and Wallaroo, the maintenance of which was paid for by the Commonwealth Government especially for ‘the protection of floating trade in Australasian waters’. The last named was in reserve at Sydney, serving as accommodation ship for the personnel attached to the Squadron’s base. Most of the other ships in the Squadron were ships not suited for service with a main Fleet. The cruisers Challenger, Pegasus, Pioneer, Prometheus and Psyche, and sloop Torch, were well suited to the cruising and flag-showing required of them at a time when, and in a place which, it was unlikely they would encounter a hostile modern warship. Later in Halsey’s time in Australia, the cruisers Encounter and Cambrian joined the Squadron and several of the older vessels departed.

As Fawkes’ Flag Captain, Halsey was involved in some of the discussion then going on regarding the form which should be taken by any future Australian contribution to naval defence. In 1975, it can be difficult to realise that the formation of the RAN was by no means a foregone conclusion. Halsey’s Chief, Admiral Fawkes, was a knowledgeable man professionally and had firm opinions of his own. He had direct access to the Governor General and Commonwealth Prime Minister – an access he used to press his views in favour of Australian contributions to an Empire Fleet. As can be imagined, Fawkes’ views were, on occasion, in conflict with those of Captain W.R. Creswell, Commonwealth Director of Naval Forces. During his period as Flag Captain, Halsey acquired a knowledge of the political and service factors and personalities involved in the formation of the RAN. This background would have been invaluable had Halsey accepted the appointment of First Naval Member fifteen years later.

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