Admiral George Edwin Patey

Commander Australian Fleet (1913)

George Edwin Patey was born at Montpellier, near Plymouth, England on 24 February 1859. His father, also George Edwin Patey, was a captain in the Royal Navy. His mother Lucinda was the daughter of Vice Admiral Thomas Russell. The young George Patey entered the Royal Naval College, Britannia, as a Cadet on 15 January 1872, just short of his thirteenth birthday. He completed his training at the college and joined his first ship, the armoured frigate HMS Northumberland, in December 1873. He was promoted Midshipman in March 1874 and transferred to the armoured frigate HMS Black Prince in July 1875 at that time serving mainly with the Channel Fleet.

Midshipman Patey was then appointed to the frigate HMS Shah, commissioned at Portsmouth on 14 August 1876, under the command of Captain Frederick Bedford, RN and flying the flag of Rear Admiral Algernon Frederick Rous de Horsey, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Squadron. Shah was a large sail and steam frigate of over 6000 tons, with an iron frame and timber planking. She was armed with 26 guns and four new torpedo launchers. Patey’s first taste of action occurred off the Peruvian coast on 29 May 1877 during an engagement between HM Ships Shah and Amethyst and the Peruvian turret ship Huascar.

During the Peruvian Civil War the armoured cruiser Huascar had been seized by rebel forces and used to attack foreign shipping, including British merchant vessels causing the Pacific Squadron to seek her out for destruction. Huascar’s armour, however, proved virtually impenetrable to the British guns and the Shah resorted to firing the first British torpedo in anger. It missed its intended target and Huascar made good her escape, later surrendering to Peruvian Government forces. The brisk action became known as the Battle of Pacocha.

While Shah was returning to England, she was diverted to South Africa to assist land forces in the Anglo-Zulu War. With sailors from various ships forming a naval infantry unit known as a naval brigade. Patey served ashore with the naval brigade and, along with others, received the South Africa Medal (1880), a campaign medal more commonly known as the Zulu War Medal.

Patey was promoted Sub Lieutenant in March 1878 and upon returning to England he undertook gunnery training at HMS Excellent (Whale Island). In October 1880, Patey joined the gunboat HMS Zephyr, then serving on the China Station. In July 1881 he transferred to the battleship HMS Iron Duke, also serving on the China Station and was promoted Lieutenant in August of that year. He returned to England in early 1883 where he undertook requisite courses for the rank of Lieutenant and further gunnery training at HMS Excellent. On completion he remained at Excellent as a member of the staff. In May 1885 Patey was appointed to the gunnery training ship HM Cambridge, then based at Plymouth. During June 1886-February 1888 he served in the corvette HMS Sapphire for squadron gunnery duties on the China Station before transferring to the battleship HMS Audacious, also on the China Station, for the remainder of 1888. In early 1889, upon returning to England, he joined Cambridge again as a Staff Officer.

Lieutenant Patey was appointed to the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign, part of the Channel Fleet, in May 1892. He was promoted Commander on 31 December 1894 and became the Executive Officer of the battleship HMS Barfleur, in February 1895, serving initially in the Mediterranean. Barfleur was involved in the British occupation of Crete in 1897 following the uprising by the Greek Christian population against the Ottomans. Eventually the Cretans forced the ruling Ottoman population to leave Crete and the island was subsequently annexed by Greece. Barfleur then served on the China Station during 1898.

Patey was appointed to the Naval Intelligence Division at the Admiralty in 1899. On promotion to Captain, on 1 January 1900, he was appointed the Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence. This was an important time for the Royal Navy with the future development of naval ships and armament giving rise to the Dreadnought era and the impending arms race with Germany. On 12 March 1902 in London, Captain Patey married Mary (Mollie) Augusta Yorke-Davies, the only daughter of the eminent Harley Street physician Dr Nathaniel Yorke-Davies. They were later to have two children, Rodney and Lorna.

In November 1902 Captain Patey was given his first command, the new battleship HMS Venerable, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), on 27 April 1903, during the visit of King Edward VII to Naples. He was also awarded an Order of the Redeemer from the King of Greece in 1903. In October 1904 he relinquished command of Venerable and returned to England where he completed the War Course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich in the first half of 1905. He took up his second command when he was appointed as the Captain of the battleship, HMS Implacable, in June 1905, serving in the Mediterranean. In 1907 Patey was awarded a Cross of the Order of Naval Merit from the King of Spain - Alfonso XII.

Patey became the captain of the training ship HMS Impregnable, in November 1907. In that role he also discharged the duties of Inspecting Captain of Boys’ Training Ships from which the Royal Navy received many personnel. On 22 March 1908 Patey performed the role of Naval Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII. Patey was promoted Rear Admiral on 2 January 1909 and following a number of specialist courses in signalling, surface gunnery and torpedo gunnery he was appointed to the Home Fleet as commander Second Division of the Second Battle Squadron in October 1910.

In early 1913 Patey was offered the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of the nascent Australian Fleet. When he later learnt that the position was to be downgraded to Rear Admiral Commanding His Majesty's Australian Fleet, and that he would no longer be entitled to an official residence and certain allowances, he sought to decline the appointment. This necessitated both the First Sea Lord, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, and Senator Edward Millen, the Australian Minister for Defence, to intervene to ensure Patey would be suitably recompensed. He subsequently accepted the appointment on 23 June 1913 hoisting his flag in the battle-cruiser HMAS Australia on that day. On 30 June 1913 at Portsmouth, during a visit to HMAS Australia by King George V, Patey was knighted on the quarterdeck of the battle-cruiser, becoming a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO). This was the first occasion that a naval officer had been knighted on board their ship since Sir Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on his ship Golden Hind on 4 April 1581.

Sir George Edwin Patey was appointed as the Rear Admiral Commanding His Majesty’s Australian Fleet on 23 June 1913.
Sir George Edwin Patey was appointed as the Rear Admiral Commanding His Majesty’s Australian Fleet on 23 June 1913.

Australia departed England, on her delivery voyage to Australia, on 21 July 1913, steaming via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in Australian waters in September. On 4 October 1913 she led the cruisers HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney and Encounter and the three destroyers Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra into Sydney Harbour for the first time as the Australian Fleet Unit. Patey spent the early months of 1914 training his new fleet and in May 1914 the arrival of the RAN’s two new E Class submarines completed it. In August 1914 however, less than a year after the Fleet Unit had arrived, Australia was at war with Germany and Patey took his forces north to take part in the capture of German Samoa and German New Guinea.

The arrival of the first Australian Naval Fleet unit in October 1913, was one of the most momentous occasions in the history of the nation.
The arrival of the first Australian Naval Fleet unit in October 1913, was one of the most momentous occasions in the history of the nation.

The RAN’s first task was the capture of the German colonies of Samoa (taken by New Zealand soldiers on 30 August 1914), Nauru and German New Guinea. Australia, Melbourne, the French warship Montcalm and HM Ships Psyche and Pyramus escorted the New Zealand troopships to Samoa to prevent possible interference by Admiral von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron whose whereabouts were unknown. Following the bloodless capture of Samoa, HMAS Melbourne was detached to seize Nauru while Patey took Australia and Montcalm to New Guinea waters for the impending landing of the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force at Rabaul.

After rendezvousing with other units of the RAN, the landing at Rabaul took place in the early hours of 11 September 1914. Despite some hard fighting that morning against German reserve forces, commanding Melanesian troops, the Australians succeeded in capturing the German wireless station at Bitapaka and by 17 September the German colony of New Guinea had surrendered. On 21 September 1914 Patey was promoted Vice Admiral. Patey’s forces had again stood by off the coast to prevent possible interference from Von Spee’s warships the whereabouts of which remained uncertain. The capture of German New Guinea had been swift but was not without loss of life. The dangers of life at sea were brought home when the submarine HMAS AE1 failed to return from a patrol off Rabaul on 14 September. Despite a widespread search nothing was found of her, or her 35 strong crew, at the time and it was not until December 2017 that her wreck was eventually discovered. It was assessed that she sunk as a result of a diving mishap.

Privately Patey considered the capture of the German colonies a minor event, that could have been delayed. He believed that the main effort in the early days of the war should have been to locate and destroy the German East Asia Cruiser Squadron which was still at large in the Pacific. By mid-October 1914 Patey had relocated his forces to Suva, Fiji and begun patrols eastwards in search of Von Spee. Patey correctly surmised that Von Spee would take his forces to the South American coast in search of Allied Merchant shipping but he was directed by the Admiralty to remain based at Suva. With warships needed elsewhere the cruisers Melbourne and Sydney were diverted back to Australia to escort the 1st AIF convoy across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East. Patey's destroyers and the submarine AE2 also returned to Sydney for maintenance. Regrettably on the evening of 1 November 1914 Von Spee’s forces comprising the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers Dresden, Leipzig and Nurnberg encountered a weaker British Squadron off the coast of Chile, near Coronel, sinking HM Ships Good Hope and Monmouth. There were no survivors from either ship.

Eventually in mid-November Patey received orders to take Australia to the west coast of Mexico to join up with light cruiser HMS Newcastle and the Japanese Battleship Hizen and cruisers Asama and Izumo, all of which were placed under Patey’s command. By 3 December 1914 this force was operating near the Galapagos Islands searching for the German warships not knowing they had already rounded Cape Horn and entered the South Atlantic. On 8 December Von Spee’s squadron was approaching the Falkland Islands with the intention of destroying the island's wireless station. The Royal Navy, however, had by then sent a significant naval force to the South Atlantic to intercept Von Spee arriving there before him. In the ensuing battle all but one of Von Spee’s squadron was destroyed with no British ships lost and few casualties.

With the exception of the light cruiser Dresden, Von Spee’s squadron was sunk in what became known as the Battle of the Falklands on 8 December 1914. Thereafter Australia received orders to proceed to England. On 5 January, soon after departing Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, she sighted a suspicious vessel and Patey order a single round to be fired across her bow. This brought the vessel to a stop and she was found to be the German liner Eleanore Woermann which had been providing logistical support to Von Spee.

For tactical reasons a prize crew was not put on board the German vessel and instead she was scuttled; speeded on her way with the assistance from two 12-inch shells from Australia. Many of Australia’s ships company were disappointed for this prevented them receiving a portion of the prize money that seizing her would have yielded. Australia arrived at Plymouth early on the morning of 29 January 1915 and went into dry-dock for repairs and maintenance. On completion Australia was allocated to the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron for service in the North Sea and there was some expectation, by Patey, that he would take command of the Grand Fleet’s battle cruisers. This was not to be, and Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty was selected by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, for the role.

Admiral Sir George Edwin Patey served as Commander of His Majesties Australian Fleet from 1913 to 1916.
Admiral Sir George Edwin Patey served as Commander of His Majesties Australian Fleet from 1913 to 1916.

On 7 March 1915 Patey was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the North America and West Indies Station, hoisting his flag in the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Caesar on 10 March. He technically remained in command of the RAN Fleet, but by that time it was widely dispersed. The light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney were in the Caribbean and the remainder of the RAN’s warships were spread across the globe under differing commands.

The North America and West Indies Station played an important role in the war, particularly during the period of United States neutrality up until April 1917. Numerous German merchant ships were interned in US ports and the British and Australian warships were conducting frequent patrols to ensure the German ships did not attempt to break out and return to Germany. There was also the fear that a German merchant ship could be armed as an auxiliary cruiser and used to attack Allied shipping in the region. As a result, patrols were conducted from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in the south, along the east coast of the United States and north to Canada.

As a British Dominion, Canada had declared war on Germany in August 1914 providing large numbers of troops to fight on the Western Front and substantial logistical support to the British. Canadian naval forces were suitable only for limited coastal patrols, thus the British warships in the region provided significant naval power to counter any potential threat from German naval forces.

In the New Year’s Honours List of 1916 Vice Admiral Patey was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) “in recognition of services rendered in connection with naval operations of the war”. On 10 March 1916, he transferred his flag to the armoured cruiser HMS Leviathan and continued in command of the North America and West Indies Station until handing over to Vice Admiral Montague Browning on 16 August 1916.

The Command of His Majesty's Australian Fleet was transferred to Rear Admiral William Pakenham, RN in September 1916. Pakenham had been in command of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, which included HMAS Australia, since March 1915 and flew his flag in Australia for much of his time in command. Again this was command very much in name only as the bulk of the RAN’s ships were located in other regions although the light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney arrived in British waters in September 1916. In October 1916 the Commonwealth of Australia Government expressed its “appreciation of service to Royal Australian Navy” to Patey.

Patey was by then 57 years of age and he received no further appointments in the Royal Navy. He was subsequently promoted Admiral on 1 January 1918 and on 21 June 1918 he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour (France) for his services to the Allied cause during the war. Admiral Patey was placed on the Retired List on 1 January 1919 and resided in Plymouth.

Admiral Sir George Edwin Patey, KCMG, KCVO, RN died on 4 February 1935 in Plymouth; his wife, Lady Mary, having predeceased him on 27 May 1930.

Admiral Sir George Edwin Patey's decorations and medals are on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Admiral Sir George Edwin Patey's decorations and medals are on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.