Comment Opinion & Features

The Catholic naval hero descended from St Thomas More

Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, painted by Sir Oswald Birley (britannia royal naval college)

Today he is little remembered. But Admiral Sir Henry Harwood made a crucial early contribution during the Second World War: he injected a vital shot of confidence into the British public by scoring the first major victory of the war, sinking the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939.

Despite promises from Churchill, he never got the chance to shine in action again. But Harwood helped to wash away the instinctive Protestant suspicion of Catholicism when he became the first Catholic to be appointed to the Board of Admiralty since the reign of King Charles II. As a descendant of St Thomas More and a great nephew of the 19th-century Archbishop Ullathorne (author of From Cabin Boy to Archbishop), the admiral was also related to Captain Thomas Harwood, who commanded a flagship at the battle of Solebay against the Dutch in 1672.

The son of a barrister who died when he was four, “Bobby” Harwood did not wear his faith on his sleeve, but he took it with him at 14 when he joined the service as a promising cadet in 1903. Tak­ing every opportunity to travel, he visit­ed the Holy Places in Jerusalem, led two pilgrimages to meet the pope in Rome – he thought the frescoes were much better than those at Hampton Court – and went to Lourdes for his honeymoon.

The Navy posted him to a gunboat on the Lower Yangtze in China, where he saw how the return of Christian missionaries was feeding riots. Steadily climbing the promotion ladder, Harwood was appointed commodore in 1936 to observe the growing German threat in South America. He was taught Spanish by a priest at Ramsgate.

Keenly aware of the value of public relations, he developed a widespread acquaintance not only in the service but also with such Catholic leaders as Cardinal Hinsley in Westminster, Archbishop Gonzi on Malta and Cardinal Copello in Argentina. The Admiralty grumbled about the lavish banquets he gave. But he earned considerable kudos when, on hearing of a devastating earthquake in Chile on his private radio, he led an immediate relief expedition. Giving up his cabin in the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter to displaced local British children, he reassured the locals by smoking a cigarette and joking in comic Spanish as he strolled among them in the rubble.

War was declared on September 2, 1939. Within three months, Admiral Graf Spee had sunk or captured numerous cargo vessels before encountering Harwood’s three ships 340 miles from Montevideo on December 13. Transferring to the light cruiser Ajax, Harwood wrote a touching farewell letter to his wife Joan, then ordered the Ajax north east with the New Zealand cruiser Ach­illes while sending Exeter north west.

This offered Admiral Graf Spee three separate targets, though she could only fire her shells at two targets at a time, enabling the cruisers with their shorter ranges to draw near; and as their shells rapidly rained down on her, the German ship fatally switched her aim between them. Her cardinal error lay in failing to finish off Exeter, which was on fire and belching smoke but still with two working guns. Harwood remarked that his ships’ shells seemed no more effective than snowballs. But Admiral Graf Spee’s bows had been blown in. Her galleys were destroyed, and she was short of drinking water.

Her captain retreated into Montevideo, a neutral port where she was only permitted to shelter for a short time. Harwood’s three ships waited for her to emerge still unrepaired, while the BBC misleadingly reported that they had been joined by other ships. During the next week the upright German captain Hans Langsdorff had his crew taken off, scuttled his ship and shot himself. “Poor man – a bad solution,” commented Harwood.

On returning home a hero, Harwood was dubbed a Knight of the Bath at Buckingham Palace: he had to cancel a trip to see his son at Ampleforth. But it was two years before he became the Navy’s C-in-C, Mediterranean. It was no easy task. His headquarters were on the Egyptian coast at Alexandria while the Army and RAF were in Cairo, 100 miles away. The dashing Air Marshal Tedder was tardy in supplying him needed aircraft, while as an Irish Protestant General Montgomery, the new desert commander, made little effort to hide his disapproval of Catholic senior officers.

Harwood was involved in several operations that went wrong, though Captain Hore, the Daily Telegraph’s naval obituarist, mounts a strong defence against his critics. His efforts to persuade Vice-Admiral Godfroy, leader of a French battle squadron loyal to Marshal Pétain, to join de Gaulle’s Free French on the Allied side eventually led to some success, though Churchill raged against their “pussyfooting”. What would have been the consequences if the French Navy had been bombarded for a second time in the war, one wonders.

But Churchill’s ringing declaration that Harwood had brought a badly needed flash of colour to the start of the conflict with “a great action which will long be told in song and story” cannot be gainsaid.

David Twiston Davies is the former chief obituary writer for The Daily Telegraph.

Henry Harwood: Hero of the River Plate, by Peter Hore (Seaforth, £25)