Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes served as Director of Combined Operations from July 1940 to October 1941. Re-organistion of the Command resulted in the old friend of Churchill's stepping down because he could not accept the new position of Combined Operations Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff - a position which, in his view, had much less status and power.
Roger Keyes was born in Tundiani Fort, India on the 4th Oct 1872. He entered the Royal Navy in 1885 later to rise in the ranks to Commander in 1900 following action against the Boxer rebellion in China. Later as Commodore, in charge of submarines from 1910 to 1914, he made a significant contribution to the British victory in the Battle of Heligoland Bight (Aug 28 1914).
In 1915 he was appointed Chief of Staff for the unsuccessful Dardanelles expedition. Two years later, as Director of Plans at the Admiralty, he was instrumental in "discouraging" German U boats from operating in Dover Command waters after the entrances to Zeebrugge and Ostende harbours were blocked in a raid. He was knighted after the Armistice and thereafter held a number of commands - Commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and Commander in Chief Portsmouth. However, he failed to gain the highest office of First Sea Lord due, in part, to a lack of political support for his plans to expand the navy between the wars. He was also, arguably, too young for WW1 and too old for WW2. His last appointment ended in 1931. [Photo - Keyes and Churchill watching a Commando Exercise on the River Clyde, Scotland in 1941.]
Such was the public adulation following the Zeebrugge operation that the remainder of his life was, to an extent, an anti climax. He became a member of Parliament for Portsmouth in 1934 until his elevation to the Peerage in 1943. In May 1940, he served as liaison between the King of the Belgians and the British Government and strongly defended the Belgians position when their capitulation was blamed for the defeat of the Expeditionary Force in northern France and its hasty withdrawal at Dunkirk. As he approached the age of 68 he was given a final chance to apply his undoubted knowledge, skills and experience when his good friend, Winston Churchill, appointed him to the post of Director of Combined Operations.
Keyes inherited the directive (job description) from his predecessor General Bourne, but his interpretation of the role was very different. "Director" indicated power and control over the resources of Combined Operations. His direct line of communication to the Minister of Defence (Churchill), simply confirmed, in his mind, his autonomy. Towards the end of August 1940, Keyes moved his staff out of the Admiralty into offices at 1a Richmond Terrace, London, henceforth known as Combined Operations HQ (COHQ). He set about restructuring his command, drawing on senior staff from the three services and placing them under his direct control. This unorthodox approach was a thorn in the flesh of high ranking traditionalists from the three services but, under the protection of Churchill, Keyes' approach prevailed - at least for a while.
History was to prove that the three services could work together more efficiently and more effectively as a combined force in pursuance of a common purpose. Freed from the constraints of the disparate internal procedures of the three services and inter-service protocols, more was achieved in less time, than would otherwise have been the case. However, a little over a year later, under severe pressure from the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill redefined the post of Director of Combined Operations to Combined Operations Advisor - a change that was to have drastic consequences for Keyes. He was unable to accept the loss of status as he perceived it to be. An exchange of letters with Churchill followed but it was clear that no resolution was possible and, with a heavy heart, Churchill replaced Keyes with a younger, more diplomatic officer by the name of Mountbatten.
In the final exchange of letters between the two old friends Churchill wrote; " I need not waste words on the pain and labour this matter has caused me." In reply Keyes wrote; "Please don't feel pain on my account, I have none. I only grieve to have let down my splendid Commandos." Despite such negative thoughts Keyes had in fact achieved a great deal in his 15 months as Director of Combined Operations. His departure was mourned by his beloved Commandos who shared much of his fighting spirit and independent thinking.
As the Member of Parliament for the Portsmouth North constituency, Keyes spoke during a debate on the King's speech in the House of Commons on the 25th of November 1941. While he warmly expressed affection and admiration for Prime Minister Churchill, his Commandos and amphibious forces, he laid bare his frustrations with the Whitehall machinery that obstructed rather than assisted Combined Operations. Hansard, the edited verbatim report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, takes up the story. Click here (Pdf File)
Using his house of Common's speech, United
Press International (UPI) issued a press release that was taken up by The
Columbus Telegram on November 27 1941, just a week or so before the USA
entered the war following the 7th of December Japanese attack on Pearl
Britain’s commandos, tough, black uniformed “phantom” troops, made a daring hit and run raid on the Normandy coast Sunday night and early Monday morning, it was disclosed officially today.
Commandos, organized to reconnoiter German defenses and cause as much havoc and destruction as possible, got ashore, completed their mission and returned, the only casualty being a man who was shot in the arm by a machine gun bullet.
As the ministry of information was announcing the raid, Admiral Sir Roger J.B. Keyes said in the House of Commons the commandos were eager and ready to act a year ago when, he said, they might have altered the course of the war. “The Prime Minister was as keen as I was to act vigorously in the face of hazards and achieve great results which, if the commandos had been allowed to carry them out, might have electrified the world and altered the whole course of the war,” Keyes said.
Work at Night
Keyes started training the men after the fall of France. Training was a closely guarded secret and even war correspondents were not allowed to visit them. Later it was learned that the commandos operate with Tommy guns, grenades, knives, sticks and dynamite. They always operate under the cover of night.
The commandos black their faces to make them match their weird black battle dress. The daring hit and run raid made by the commandos Sunday night was the first against the continent to have been acknowledged officially.
German high command mentioned it in a communiqué issued from Adolf Hitler’s field headquarters. Germans, however, said the raid had been repulsed and heavy losses had been inflicted on the British.
Keyes attacked the “brass hats of Whitehall” for “frustrating every worthwhile offensive action I have ever tried to make.” Keyes said the service committees and subcommittees which have sprung up since the start of the war have become almost the dictators of military policy “instead of the servants.”
He said the service committees and subcommittees “concentrated on the difficulties and dangers of every enterprise which I suggested.”
“They have hitherto succeeded in thwarting or delaying execution until we either have been forestalled or actions have been taken too late for success,” he said. “Until the staff system is thoroughly overhauled we will always be too late for everything we undertake.”
“I have unbounded faith in our ultimate victory but that victory will be delayed while, in Whitehall phraseology, every stone is turned and every avenue is explored,” he told the Commons. It was recalled that in a broadcast last weekend the British radio warned the French people “to prepare for the hour of invasion that the allies one day will make.”
There was no suggestion, however, that he latest raid was big enough to be connected with any invasion hopes. The BBC broadcast, however, called on the French people to “prepare to give the best possible support to invading armies”. [Reproduced courtesy of UPI.]
Roger John Brownlow Keyes or Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover died on Dec 26th 1945 in Buckingham, England. He was laid to rest among his fallen Zeebrugge comrades in the small cemetery of St John's Church, Dover, England.
Perhaps Keyes' attitude to life can be gleaned from a single line he wrote in the fly leaf of a book he sent to his friend Haydon...
"He most prevails who nobly dares."
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.
The Lessons of Naval History - the text of a speech made Keyes to The Empire Club of Canada on 4/9/34 when he was Admiral of the Fleet.
Roger Keyes; a biography of
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover, G.C.B., K.C.V.O., C.M.G.,
D.S.O. C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, London, Hogarth Press, 1951. xv, 478 p. illus. 23
Commandos 1940 -1946 by Charles Messenger 1985. Published by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 05531