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- March 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Joining the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight in 1913 at the age of 13, Brian de Courcy-Ireland was subjected to the spartan naval discipline of the age. One of the youngest and smallest of his term, he nevertheless flourished in an atmosphere which taught self-control, self-reliance and loyalty to the Service.
His training was curtailed by the Great War and he was still under 16 when he was posted to the battleship Bellerophon with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. The words of Captain Bligh still held good: “A Midshipman, Mr Byam, is the smallest creature on God’s earth,” De Courcy-Ireland recalled that he was, on arrival, given a dozen of the best by the sub-lieutenant for his temerity in joining the ship.
In the evening of May 31, 1916, Bellerophon was one of Admiral Jellicoe’s 24 battleships steaming towards the German High Seas Fleet. Allocated to the Fourth Division under Admiral Sturdee, hero of the Battle of the Falklands, Bellerophon took part in the rigidly controlled manoeuvres that characterised the Battle of Jutland, firing more than one hundred rounds of 12-inch ammunition at German battleships fleetingly seen through mist and funnel smoke.
De Courcy-Ireland’s action station was in Q turret, where he was responsible for operating a local control deflection calculator. His turret was credited with sinking one of the five destroyers that the Germans lost that day.
He vividly remembered steaming through wreckage and floating bodies at about 6.30 pm, thinking them to be German. They were, in fact, the remains of the battlecruiser Invincible, sunk in Admiral Beatty’s disastrous scouting force engagement.
For much of the war thereafter De Courcy-Ireland’s duties with the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow were running picket boats in foul weather, coating ship and watchkeeping. But they were interrupted on the night of July 9, 1917, by the terrific magazine explosion that destroyed the battleship Vanguard, killing all but two of the 800 on board. With others of Rudyard Kipling’s “Scholars” (young officers whose Dartmouth training was interrupted by war and celebrated in a poem of that title) he recalled “harvesting the dreadful mile of beach” with a bucket.
Later transferring to destroyers, he was perilously rescued from a flooding compartment after his ship, the Pellew, was torpedoed by a U-boat. He was sent immediately to the destroyer Westcott from which he witnessed the scuttling of the captured German Fleet at Scapa Flow in June 1919. He recorded his shock at seeing German sailors abandoning their ships and then himself futilely having to slam watertight doors and hatches aboard the German ships.
After the war, like others of Kipling’s poem who survived it, he was sent as a scholar to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to complete his education.
Surviving the Geddes Axe of 1922, he spent two years at Flinders Naval Depot in Australia, helping virtually to build the place out of the bush on the shores of Westernport Bay, Victoria, and forming a longstanding affection for Australians and their Navy.
After a commission in a Mediterranean cruiser, de Courcy-Ireland joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1926, and, on completion of training as an observer, served as aircrew in the early and primitive aircraft carriers, Furious and Argus, flying Fairey HID biplanes. Married and with a baby, he was then posted to Hong Kong and the carrier Hermes.
Here, after a routine high level photo-reconnaissance of the Chinese mainland without oxygen, he collapsed and heart disease was diagnosed by the surgeon captain in charge. When he was repatriated together with his family, the doctors at Chatham were surprised that he was still alive, and eventually questioned Hong Kong about the diagnosis – but the surgeon captain had meanwhile died of a stroke himself. Eventually cleared, he was sent back to sea in carriers, becoming the senior operations officer on the carrier admiral’s staff and serving during the Abyssinian crisis of 1936.
Promoted to commander and appointed to the Air Ministry in 1937, he worked under Air Commodore Sholto Douglas, acting as a link with the Admiralty during the negotiations that eventually transferred control of the Fleet Air Arm from RAF to Navy.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, de Courcy-Ireland was second-in-command of the cruiser Newcastle. Patrolling in northern waters, Newcastle was involved in the search for the battlecruiser Scharnhorst after the tragic sinking of the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi, and in covering the withdrawal of allied forces from Norway.
Later, in the Mediterranean, Newcastle took part in the Malta convoys and the Battle of Cape Spartivento. When in the South Atlantic, de Courcy-Ireland was relieved and arrived back at the Air Ministry in June 1941 after a circuitous and adventurous passage.
During a period of immense difficulty, with operational lessons about airpower at sea and on land being learnt every day, he described his job as “telling Their Warships what Their Airships had been up to and vice-versa”. He was rewarded by command of the naval air station on Tarbat Ness, followed by a final wartime appointment in Combined Operations headquarters in Whitehall. Here he contributed to the fresh approach to the technical problems of amphibious warfare that resulted in the range of specialised equipment that was to be so successful in Normandy and elsewhere.
In 1946 de Courcy-Ireland was given command of the cruiser Ajax, famous for her part in the destruction of the pocket battleship Graf Spee. His cheerful leadership made for an outstandingly successful commission in which Ajax participated in many of the postwar crises in the Mediterranean; covering the minesweeping of the Corfu Channel after the incident with Albania; guaranteeing Trieste against Tito; support for Greece in the struggle against the communists; and the blockade of Palestine against Jewish immigrants – “desperate people and a thankless task.”
De Courcy-Ireland’s final tour was as Deputy Director of Naval Equipment. He retired in 1951.
Captain Brian de Courcy-Ireland, Jutland veteran and naval Director of Combined Operations, 1944-45, was born on May 5, 1900. He died on November 11, 2001, aged 101.