A couple of years ago I wrote a review of HV Morton’s 1932 “Blue Days at Sea” for the blog. In the section of the book which recounts Morton’s time spent on attachment with the Royal Navy, I mentioned the author was accomodated, in room number eleven, aboard the mighty HMS Impenetrable. Costing an unimaginable (for the time) £7,488,274 to build, this vessel ran on 45,000 horse-power turbines and sported nine 16-inch guns, any three of which cost £100 to fire at one time. Morton describes this floating city as a steel island which ploughed through the ocean, the like of which had never sailed the seas before; he wryly comments that if a careful visitor searched hard enough they may have been able to find a screw or bolt small enough to represent their income tax.
This touching description was marred for me by only one thing – HMS Impenetrable didn’t seem to exist… and no amount of googling turned up any trace of her!
Then, in February this year, I was contacted by a canny e-bay salesman who wondered if I might be interested in bidding for a letter which had come into his posession – I took him up on his offer and, to my delight, my bid was successful. When the letter arrived, it turned out it had been written by HV Morton from Gibraltar in 1929 while based aboard one HMS Rodney. This time google came up trumps and it didn’t take long to discover that this ship, a Nelson-class battleship, was commissioned in 1927, so would have been only a couple of years old as Morton typed his missif. Could this have been the ship described in “Blue Days at Sea“, I wondered?
Morton’s letter to Miss Brooke
I dug deeper, and discovered, like the fictional Impenetrable, HMS Rodney (along with her sister-ship, HMS Nelson) was the most powerful military vessel afloat at the time. She too had nine 16-inch guns and was propelled by eight Admiralty 3-drum oil-fired boilers, powering 2 Brown-Curtis geared turbine sets generating 45,000 horse-power. Her construction cost is given online as £7,617,799, a mere £129,525 different from HVM’s figure and her crew complement is reported to have been 1,314, while Morton gives the Impenetrable’s crew as “about 1,200 men” – as near as makes no odds.
HMS Rodney – picture courtesy of wikipedia
This was very exciting – I believed the mystery had been solved! Surely the elusive HMS Impenetrable was in fact none other than the Rodney, which, I learned, had served with such distinction during the second World War, taking part in the sinking of the Bismark, Arctic convoy escort and the landings at Normandy, Sicily and Salerno. It was clear Morton’s admiration for her crew had been well placed and the ship’s motto “Non Generant Aquilae Colombas” (Eagles do not bring forth doves) was more than borne out by the heroic actions of its crew.
My hopes were confirmed when I made enquiries of Kenneth Fields and Peter Devenish, of the HV Morton Society. Peter reported Morton was aboard HMS Rodney as a guest of the Navy while writing a short series of newspaper articles for the Daily Express. The title of the series was ‘Fleet Exercise in the Mediterranean‘. From Kenneth’s assiduous research we know the following pieces were published in the series:
How Planes Fought Warships – published 3 April 1929
The World’s Mightiest Battleship – published 4 April 1929
Action Fought by Blind Men – published 8 April 1929
The Priest of the Parish – published 9 April 1929
The titles of those articles, in which Morton says, of HMS Rodney: “This battleship and her sister, The Nelson, are the world’s latest and most powerful warships” would fit very well with accounts of the Impenetrable contained in “Blue Days at Sea” and the dates certainly fit the date of the letter he wrote to Miss Brooke from Gibraltar on 25 March 1929.
As for the letter itself, Kenneth reminded me the piece HVM wrote about Sandwell Hall, mentioned in the letter, can be found in “The Call of England”, chapter 12, section 8. It is a touching account of a stately home, brought low by the industrial revolution, undermined by pit shafts, deserted and shortly to be demolished. Even by Morton’s standards this section has particular pathos, and it is no surprise that Miss Brooke’s ailing mother was so affected by it. But what her “interesting and… pathetic letter” acually contained we may never know, intriguing at it is.
Whatever the story behind it, this letter is now one of my greatest treasures – the ship’s crest and motto, the slightly uneven type-writing, Morton’s signature, even the imprint of a rusty paperclip at the top, all speak of real provenance; the parties involved, quite unwittingly, about to become part of a pivotal moment in world history.
With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
… with grateful thanks to Kenneth Fields and Peter Devenish
This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.175 on 29 November 2014