Admiral Lionel Halsey

Lionel Halsey was born in London on 26 February 1872, one of nine children born to Sir Thomas Frederick Halsey (Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire) and Mary Julia Halsey (née Wells). He was educated at Stubbington House in Fareham, Hampshire (known as the cradle of the Navy as many of the students went on to naval careers) and entered Britannia Royal Naval College (on board HMS Britannia at Dartmouth) on 15 January 1885. Upon graduating from the college he joined his first ship, the armoured frigate HMS Agincourt which was part of the Channel Fleet. He was promoted Midshipman in July 1887 and soon after, was appointed to the frigate HMS Raleigh which was flagship of the Cape of Good Hope and West Africa Station.

He was promoted Sub Lieutenant on 14 July 1891 and later returned to England to undertake promotion courses at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. On completion of this training he joined the 2nd Class cruiser HMS Mercury, in September 1892, and saw service on the China Station. Returning to England in mid-1893 he served briefly in the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert II before being promoted Lieutenant on 28 August 1893. Lieutenant Halsey was then appointed to the battleship HMS Ramillies, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet.

Lieutenant Halsey served briefly in the Portland based boys training ship HMS Boscawen during December 1894-March 1895 before serving for two years as the flag lieutenant to Vice Admiral Sir James Erskine, Commander in Chief of the North America and West Indies Station; flying his flag in the cruiser HMS Crescent. In 1897 Halsey joined the cruiser HMS Powerful for service on the China Station. In late 1899 the cruiser was returning to England when fighting broke out in southern Africa between Great Britain and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Powerful was diverted to South Africa and in October 1899 Lieutenant Halsey was detached from the ship to command a 4.7 inch naval gun, removed from a Royal Navy ship, assisting in the defence of the town of Ladysmith. The town was besieged by Boer forces for 118 days, from 2 November 1899 until 28 February 1900, during which time Halsey was the second in command of the naval forces operating there. He was later mentioned in dispatches (London Gazette, 22 May 1900) for his leadership during the siege and given special promotion to Commander, on 1 January 1901; prior to attaining the necessary eight years of service as a Lieutenant.

Halsey joined the cruiser HMS Diana (Mediterranean Fleet) as Executive Officer in mid-January 1901. In late June 1902 he was appointed to HMS Victory for services in organising the Coronation Naval Review at Portsmouth for King Edward VII. In October 1902 he became Executive Officer of the cruiser HMS Good Hope; flagship of 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet. One of the ship’s first tasks was to convey the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, to South Africa in late 1902 for negotiations with the Boer Governments regarding a unified South Africa (following the cessation of hostilities on 31 May 1902).

In November 1904 Halsey was appointed to the Admiralty as the Naval Member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Committee; where he was noted for his ability to get on with people of all ages and backgrounds. He married Morwenna Grenville, on 24 January 1905, and they later had two daughters. Halsey was promoted Captain on 30 June 1905 and in August of that year took command of the cruiser HMS Powerful. He also became flag captain to Vice Admiral Sir Wilmott Fawkes when the cruiser became flagship on the Australia Station.

Halsey’s wife joined him in Australia and they resided in Sydney which was the Squadron’s main base, although he was often away at sea. Halsey was aware of the mood in Australia towards the nation’s future naval defence. The creation of the Royal Australian Navy from the remnants of the former colonial navies was only a few years in the future; however he kept his personal views on the matter to himself.

Fawkes relinquished command of the Australian Squadron in December 1907 and he and Halsey returned to England. In April 1908 Fawkes was appointed as Commander in Chief, Plymouth and Halsey again served as his flag captain, conducting the myriad of administrative duties required to manage this command. In April 1911 Halsey took command of the armoured cruiser HMS Donegal serving as part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, on the North America and West Indies Station. In 1912 the cruiser became part of the Training Squadron of the Home Fleet. In October 1912 Halsey was appointed as the commissioning Commanding Officer of the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand and in early 1913 the ship commenced a ten month world cruise.

During the ship’s visit to New Zealand, as the New Zealand people had provided substantial funding for the warship’s construction, Halsey was presented with a Maori war kilt (piu-piu) and greenstone hei-tiki by a senior Maori chief. Halsey was given strict instructions to wear them in battle and that doing so would mean no harm would come to the ship. The battle cruiser spent ten weeks in New Zealand during April-June visiting various ports including Auckland, Picton, Wellington, Lyttleton and Dunedin. Upon return to England Halsey was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) on 8 December 1913 (London Gazette, 9 December 1913). In July 1914 New Zealand took part in the Battle Cruiser Squadron visit to St Petersburg, then capital of the Russian Empire.

Halsey was still in command of New Zealand when war with Germany was declared on 4 August 1914 and within the space of six months the battle cruiser fought in two significant actions against the German Navy. The first was the battle of Heligoland Bight (28 August 1914) where the Germans lost four ships and suffered over 700 killed. The Royal Navy lost no ships in this action and had less than 100 men killed or wounded. New Zealand was then engaged in the battle of Dogger Bank (24-25 January 1915) in which she contributed to the sinking of the cruiser SMS Blucher. In both actions Halsey wore the piu-piu and tiki and New Zealand emerged unscathed, and without casualties, which enhanced the Maori chief’s 1913 directions and set the standard for future Commanding Officers of the battle cruiser. Halsey was subsequently mentioned in dispatches for the Dogger Bank action (London Gazette, 2 March 1915).

In June 1915 Halsey was appointed as a Commodore 1st Class and became captain of the fleet (or flag captain) to Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet flying his flag in HMS Iron Duke. Halsey’s main role was administrative ensuring the fleet was properly fueled, stored and victualled for offensive operations; requiring close liaison with each ship’s captain and a certain degree of patience and tact. Additionally he was involved in supervising each squadron and flotillas routines for training, maintenance and recreational activities. He was present at the battle of Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916) and was again mentioned in dispatches. On 3 June 1916 Halsey was appointed as a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in the King’s Birthday Honours List for his services as naval Aide-de-camp to King George V.

After the Battle of Jutland Admiral Jellicoe wrote:

My special thanks are due to Commodore Lionel Halsey, CMG, the Captain of the Fleet, who also assists me in the working of the Fleet at sea, and to whose good organisation is largely due the rapidity with which the Fleet was fueled and replenished with ammunition on return to its bases. He was of much assistance to me during the action.

For his services at Jutland he was also made an Officer of the French Legion d’honneur (London Gazette, 15 September 1916).

On 4 December 1916 Halsey was appointed as Fourth Sea Lord, at the Admiralty, overseeing logistics and pay for the entire Royal Navy. He was promoted Rear Admiral on 26 April 1917 and also elevated to Commander of the French Legion d’honneur (London Gazette, 20 April 1917). In May 1917 Halsey was appointed Third Sea Lord (Chief of Naval Materiel) overseeing the design and procurement of equipment, weapons and ships for the navy and was also awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun Second Class (London Gazette, 30 October 1917). Rear Admiral Halsey was a close confidante of Admiral Jellicoe and when the later was dismissed as First Sea Lord, in December 1917, Halsey considered resigning but was convinced by Jellicoe to stay on as Third Sea Lord.

On 2 August 1918 Halsey was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) for his service in the Admiralty. In September 1918 he departed the Admiralty and was appointed as Rear Admiral Commanding the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, based at Rosyth, hoisting his flag in HMAS Australia. Additionally he also became Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Fleet taking over from Rear Admiral Leveson. This additional role carried with it the responsibility for the coordination of administration for Australian warships in European waters; mainly the cruisers Melbourne and Sydney but also the six River class destroyers then serving in the Mediterranean.

Left: Lionel Halsey seen as Lieutenant. Right: Rear Admiral Halsey, Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Fleet and his staff on HMAS Australia
Left: Lieutenant Lionel Halsey distinguished himself during the siege of the South African township Ladysmith. Right: Rear Admiral Halsey, Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Fleet and his staff on board HMAS Australia. (AWM collection)

The 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron was on stand-by in October 1918 when intelligence reports indicated the German High Seas Fleet might sortie into the North Sea for one final battle, to try to stave off a German surrender. This came to naught as the German sailors mutinied, partly in protest of the planned courses of action which would not change the outcome of the war but would incur heavy casualties. On 21 November 1918 Australia commanded the port line of warships that escorted the German Fleet into internment at Scapa Flow.

From December 1918 onwards Halsey and his staff began the preparations for the RAN to return to Australia, this included the battle cruiser Australia, the cruisers Brisbane (which had arrived in the Mediterranean in November 1918), Melbourne and Sydney, the six destroyers Huon, Parramatta, Swan, Torrens, Warrego and Yarra, the submarine tender Platypus and collier Kurumba (which had been built in England but loaned to the Royal Navy). This was a complex task as Brisbane and the destroyers were now operating in the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, as part of a Royal Navy force, overseeing the terms of the Turkish surrender as well as supporting Allied efforts in Southern Russia to stop advancing Bolshevik forces who were locked in a bitter civil war with Imperial Russian (White) government.

A plan was devised by Halsey and Rear Admiral Francis Haworth-Booth RN, who had carried out much of the administration of the RAN in England from the London Depot based at Australia House. This involved concentrating the Australian warships in England for much needed maintenance and equipment upgrades before returning to Australia in batches. Additionally the Royal Navy had made a gift of six J Class submarines and six destroyers and the crewing and outfitting with stores and equipment had to be arranged.

On 22 March 1919, Halsey handed over command of the Australian Fleet to Australian-born John Saumarez Dumaresq who was appointed as Commodore Commanding the Australian Fleet.

Halsey then served in the Admiralty from March to August 1919 (overseeing the committee for officers pay reform and the upcoming peace celebrations) before being appointed as Chief of Staff to the Prince of Wales for his tours of Canada, the United States of America and the West Indies in 1919, and Australia and New Zealand in 1920, while embarked in the battleship HMS Renown. These tours during 1919-20 were in many ways to thank the various nations for their support during the war. Halsey was awarded the United States of America Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) (London Gazette, 16 September 1919) for his war service and soon after was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) (London Gazette, 1 December 1919).

In 1920 he was appointed as Comptroller and Treasurer to the Prince of Wales, a member of the Princes Council and also a member of the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall. Halsey was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) on 11 October 1920 and appointed as an extra equerry to the prince in 1921. He was promoted Vice Admiral on 5 July 1921 but voluntarily retired from the Royal Navy on 1 November 1922.

He continued to accompany the Prince of Wales on his many overseas visits. HMS Renown was again used for the visits to India, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong and Japan in 1921-22. Following these visits Halsey was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) and was also awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun First Class (London Gazette, 9 June 1922). In October 1925 Halsey was elevated to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) following the prince’s visit to southern Africa and South America. Halsey was promoted Admiral on the retired list on 4 October 1926 and also appointed as the Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Bedfordshire.

Following the death of King George V on 20 January 1936, the Prince of Wales, as next in line to the throne, became King Edward VIII but had yet to be crowned. A royal crisis emerged as King Edward was adamant that he would marry the divorcee Mrs Wallis Simpson. This was opposed by the higher echelons of British society and was also against the Church of England rulings regarding divorced people marrying if their former partner was still alive. As the future king was also head of the Church of England he could not legally marry Simpson. Additionally Wallis Simpson was also an American by birth, which was frowned upon by many in Great Britain.

Halsey also opposed the marriage and, as a result, was dismissed from the King Edward’s staff. King Edward VIII subsequently abdicated on 11 December 1936 and his younger brother Albert became King George VI. Halsey was re-instated as an equerry to King George VI and took part in the Coronation procession, on 12 May 1937, as acting Keeper of the Jewel House.

During World War II Halsey was Deputy Lieutenant for the county of Hertfordshire and heavily involved in the work of the Navy League, particularly in connection with the Sea Cadet Corps, of which he became Honorary Commodore in England and Wales in 1942. He was also the county director for Bedfordshire of the British Red Cross Society; and its president from 1945.

A born leader, a first-class seaman, and a master of his profession. A man of much charm, he was regarded by all who knew him or served under him with affection as well as with the loyalty which a high sense of duty and unswerving devotion to an ideal can always command. He had a great devotion to the Royal Family, and was deeply moved by the abdication from the Throne of one whom he had served so long and loyally. Though his appointment at Court caused him to move among the great and to take part in great events, he never lost his love of simple things, and he was never so happy as when he was leading a quiet country life at his home in Bedfordshire.

Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, GCMG, GCVO, KCIE, CB died on 26 October 1949 at Mount Pleasant, Biggleswade and was buried in the churchyard of St Leonard’s Church in Old Warden, Bedfordshire, England. He was survived by his wife and two children.