The “Marshals” – Careers

Marshal Ney with her turret trained on the broadside, probably on gunnery trials. Blast bags are fitted to each gun to prevent the blast entering the turret through the gun ports.

A close-up of Marshal Soult’s turret, showing the raised axis of the 15in guns permitting 30 degrees elevation. Ammunitioning is in progress at Dunkirk, with cordite cases lying on deck, each holding two 107lb quarter charges. The two 4in visible and the two 2pdr on platforms aft date the photograph as the spring of 1918. The conning tower has ceased to be used, the original searchlight platform being expanded instead. The chequer pattern was intended to confuse German rangefinders ashore and to blend into the ML’s protective smokescreens.

The protection of the Marshals was basically similar to that of the 14in monitors, except for the turret and the hump necessitated by the height of the diesel engines. The sloping main deck forward, visible in the photograph on the previous spread, saved a little weight compared with a closing vertical bulkhead.

Marshal Soult as completed; the ugliest of all the monitors with a disproportioned profile. The later 14ft increase in Soult’s funnel height worsened an already bizarre appearance. The tall barbette was necessary owing to the minimum length of the turret ammunition trunk. Marshal Ney was almost indistinguishable from her sister as completed, although after removal of the 15in turret her later armaments of 9.2in and then 6in guns readily distinguished the two vessels.

As with the first of the 12in monitors, the original plan for sending Marshal Ney out to the Dardanelles had been cancelled and she had been allocated to the Dover Squadron. Her maiden voyage from the Tyne was an exciting one, as engine trouble continued to plague her. More often than not one or other of her engines was out of action. Her difficulties were accentuated by underpowered steering gear and poor response to the helm, so that, despite tug assistance, she was continually sheering off course, at times even making a complete 360-degree turn before control was regained. She eventually arrived at Sheerness on 3 September, going straight on to calibrate her guns on the Shoeburyness range, to adjust the sights so that both guns fired to the required distance. It had been discovered by this time that the 12in monitors were outranged by the Tirpitz battery. Bacon was therefore anxious to get Ney into service as soon as possible to use her longer-range guns, so she was prepared for her first operation. She was to steam inshore between Dunkirk and Nieuport, where it was thought that the Tirpitz guns could not bear. After waddling across to Dunkirk she joined the other monitors on 19 September in attempting to smother the fire of the coastal batteries. About midday Ney opened fire on Westende from 15,000yd, but she received no spotting reports as the only spotting station ashore could not obtain proper bearings from its acute angle to the line of fire. Tirpitz’s guns soon showed that Ney was still within their arc of fire, so she was forced to withdraw out of range after only seven rounds. She returned later in the afternoon even closer off the beaches of La Panne and obtained rather better results, one hit being signalled out of sixteen rounds and the Germans being forced to evacuate temporarily the Aachen battery of four 150mm guns. Unfortunately the heavy blast from her guns blew the securing slip off the port anchor and the cable ran out while the ship was under way, bringing her to a complete halt. It proved impossible to heave the cable back in; neither could the starboard engine be started. Under power of the port engine she grounded lightly while, to add to her discomfort, Tirpitz had now found her range and proceeded to surround her with uncomfortably close shell bursts. She soon got off the sandbank, only to find that her rudders had jammed and that the only motion possible was slow circling. Tweedie dared not stop his one remaining engine, so the destroyer Viking was ordered to tow her out of danger. This was successfully achieved under cover of a smokescreen, the passage back to Dunkirk being made at twice her normal speed.

She was back in action again on 25 September, supporting the big Army offensive. This time the Westende batteries were her target, receiving seventeen rounds before Viking again had to tow her away. A week later both engines again broke down before another bombardment. It was now abundantly clear that, if her great firepower was to be properly exploited, considerable modifications would be needed to her engines and steering gear to obtain reliable performance. So on 20 October she was drydocked at Southampton, where her rudders were modified and new steering gear was fitted. She then went across to Cowes to give her engine builders a chance to improve the starting and reversing characteristics of her diesels; of course no advice was available from the German designers.

Meanwhile, Marshal Soult had arrived at Dover on 6 November but had been despatched immediately to Portsmouth for a new set of propellers and to have her mine-wires removed. On her new trials she managed 6½kts without any trouble from her Vickers engines. She joined the Dover Squadron as an effective unit on 28 November and saw her first action on 23 December, when she bombarded the area around Westende Casino with six rounds. Two more similar sorties were made in late December, while on 15 and 26 January she again bombarded Westende, on the latter occasion in company with four of the 12in monitors.

Ney had arrived back at Dover on 13 December, as Bacon wanted her for supporting his planned attacks on Zeebrugge and Ostende. But the next few weeks showed that her troubles had not really been cured. She remained as unmanageable as ever and her engines could never be relied upon, either to start or, once started, to continue running. Finally the ever-optimistic Swan had to admit defeat when a cylinder exploded, blowing parts of the engine through the deckhead. As Soult had shown herself a much more satisfactory performer, the Admiralty decided to cut their losses with Ney. By transferring her turret to one of the new fast monitors then building, they hoped to get her powerful armament back into service quickly. Accordingly Ney was despatched to the Tyne under tow, arriving at Elswick on 29 January 1916, where her turret was removed for transfer to Terror, under construction at Belfast. In April she returned to Portsmouth, where she was fitted with a reduced armament consisting of a single 9.2in and four single 6in. She was back in commission on 16 June, and new trials were undertaken with a moderate degree of success, so she returned hopefully to Dover. But her performance in service proved as bad as ever; her engines and steering prevented her from becoming an effective unit of the Squadron. She was sent back to Portsmouth, paying off for the second time on 15 August.

General patrol work occupied most of Soults time during 1916, involving occasional brushes with enemy aircraft and destroyers. It was September before she again used her 15in guns in earnest, supporting Haig’s Somme offensive. Between 8 and 13 September she fired thirty-seven rounds of CPC, mostly at enemy 150mm coastal batteries. By firing from behind a smokescreen the safe firing range could be brought down to about 22,000yd. Shortly afterwards she was hit by a bomb while alongside at Dunkirk. By this time both Erebus and Terror had entered service, so Soult could be spared to have her gun mounting altered to give 10 degrees extra elevation up to 30 degrees, similar to the two new ships. She left for Elswick, arriving on 6 November, and returned to Dover on 12 March 1917 with her guns now capable of about 30,000yd range.

Meanwhile, further modifications had been made to Ney at Portsmouth. White’s had another go at her engines, which performed quite well in basin trials at Portsmouth in December. But these were too late to save her from being relegated to a stationary role as a guardship. Merchant traffic along the south and east coast of England all passed through the special anchorage at the Downs off Ramsgate, where examination of vessels for blockade-running cargoes took place. Vessels also used the anchorage to lay up overnight or when enemy sorties or unswept minefields presented temporary dangers. Such a collection of ships formed a tempting target, which had to be well protected by destroyers and drifters, backed up by a 12in monitor when necessary. The need for strong protection was borne out when German destroyers raided the Downs in February and March 1917. Rather than employ one of his more active monitors, Bacon decided to convert Ney to a full-time guardship at the Downs, fitting her with six 6in guns. Her good underwater protection made her almost immune from U-boat attack, while her armament was still strong enough to drive off destroyers. She took up her station at the north end of the Downs on 5 April 1917, and was soon in action. On the morning of the 19th six German seaplanes appeared over the Goodwin Sands and two, which were carrying torpedoes, calmly circled Ney amidst a barrage of AA fire. One torpedo was dropped from low level but fortunately missed Ney, passed under a nearby dredger and embedded itself in the mud of Ramsgate Harbour. Ney’s chance came on 27 April, when she returned the fire of several destroyers shelling Ramsgate, who retired in the face of this strong opposition. Thereafter things became rather quieter as German destroyer raids virtually ceased, but she often used her HA guns against the night-time aircraft and Zeppelin raids. Not until after the Armistice did she leave her anchorage, where she had performed a dull but important service, being towed round to Sheerness on 12 December 1918.

In contrast, Soult saw considerable action over the next 18 months, as Bacon was determined to make full use of his three 15in monitors. From early February 1917 he had been making detailed plans to bombard the lock gates of the Bruges Canal, which if damaged would seriously restrict the use of the important naval base at Bruges. It is worth describing the operation in some detail, as it well illustrates the difficulties the monitors faced in bombarding small targets on strongly defended coastlines. First the target: to put the lock out of action both gates needed to be hit, as otherwise passage could be made using only one gate, which could be opened for about two hours around high water. Each gate was only about 90ft x 30ft in size and invisible from the sea. Bacon calculated the chances of hitting such a target from 13 miles as one in sixty-three, but he halved the chances to allow for the difficulty of accurately laying a gun subject to all the motions of a ship. About 250 rounds would thus be required to hit both main lock gates, even before any consideration could be given to the spare gate kept nearby. Second the opportunity: to fire 250 rounds would take about 1½hr with three monitors each firing one round per minute. Such a rate was not difficult for the ships, but would be quite a strain on the spotters. But conditions had to be just right; a calm sea to prevent excessive rolling, no cloud or mist over the target so that the spotting aircraft would have a clear view, and the tide running along the coast to allow the ships to anchor broadside-on to the target. Third and most important of all, opposition: the monitors would have to fire from within the 41,000yd range of the Kaiser Wilhelm battery. This meant that an onshore wind was required so that the ML’s smokescreen would continue to shield the monitors from view; that a dawn operation was desirable to achieve surprise before the enemy could retaliate seriously, jam the spotting wireless or cover the target with defensive smokescreens; that strong air patrols would be needed to prevent enemy aircraft or observation balloons spotting for their return fire, and to guard the British spotters. All in all, the chances of getting exactly the right conditions and then actually hitting the targets were slight, but Bacon judged the risks worthwhile to curb the U-boats by sealing one of their bases, despite the shortage of reliable 15in ammunition and spare guns post-Jutland. His plan was to anchor the three 15in monitors near to a predetermined position off Zeebrugge and for them to use a 12in monitor as a back-aiming mark. To keep their approach within the hours of darkness, a speed of at least 9kts was required of the fleet, so each fast monitor would have to tow one of the slow ones.

All was ready by 25 March, but mist came down, forcing a postponement of the operation. A fortnight elapsed before the tides were once more suitable, but again on 8 April the weather proved too bad. On 18 April the start was delayed by Erebus fouling her propeller at Dunkirk and then, after the flotilla had got under way, Soult sheered off while being towed by Terror, breaking her towline. Further attempts during April were frustrated by the weather or other factors. Not until 11 May did everything again appear promising, when the 41-ship flotilla set off from Dover at about 18.00; Terror flying Bacon’s flag and towing Soult at 10kts, Erebus towing Sir John Moore, followed by M.24 and M.26, ten destroyers, six paddle minesweepers and nineteen MLs. They anchored in the firing position at about 04.20 on the 12th, but poor visibility forced Moore to anchor only 4,200yd off instead of the planned 12,000yd, thus seriously multiplying any errors of bearing. Of the three spotting aircraft, two had reported mechanical trouble and had been forced to land again, while the third had arrived as early as 03.00 and was running short of fuel by the time the monitors were in position.

Fire was opened at 04.45 from about 26,000yd, Soult and Terror taking the south gate as their target while Erebus took the north. The first ranging shots fell short but were soon corrected, and shooting settled down to a steady 20sec rhythm. Not all of the rounds could be spotted after their 54sec flight, as several did not burst, but the spotter reported hits with Soult’s twelfth round and Erebus’s twenty-sixth. The Germans put up smoke to screen the locks, but fortunately it was wrongly placed and did not hamper the British fire. By now Kaiser Wilhelm had begun to open fire, but the British smokescreen and strong air patrols prevented any worthwhile spotting, so after four rounds the Germans gave up. The thick white screen completely covered the ships from the shore, even hiding the red-brown cordite puffs and the occasional black smoke from their funnels. The spotting aircraft stayed as long as possible, but had to leave at 05.30, having run seriously short of fuel. There-after the monitors estimated their own corrections and ceased fire at 06.00, when the wind changed direction, but before a relief spotter could take over. The flotilla then retired to Dover, feeling that a good morning’s work had been done: 175 rounds fired of which Soult had contributed fifty-one. Decorations awarded included five DSOs and ten DSMs. Subsequent reports and aerial photographs were disappointing as they showed that, although several shells had fallen very close, twenty-one of them within 50yd, no damage had been inflicted on the actual gates or pumphouses. The only results of this major effort were three enemy killed, four wounded, temporary damage to the lock pumphouse and some churned-up roads and railways, plus confirmation that the chances of hitting such small targets from long range in the face of a host of practical difficulties were slim indeed.

The summer months of 1917 were spent on patrol, particularly from July while the 12in monitors were preparing for the Great Landing. This ‘BO Patrol’ consisted of one of the 15in monitors, two small monitors, a light cruiser and about nine destroyers. Arrangements were made for MLs and spotting aircraft to be on hand if conditions were favourable for bombardment. Soult ’s first opportunity came on 4 September, when she put twenty-eight rounds into Ostende Dockyard, firing at maximum range while under way. She had another go at Ostende on 21 October, firing nineteen rounds and damaging some ships and exploding the magazine of a nearby AA battery, before the thickness of the enemy smokescreen prevented further shooting. For a short period at the end of October she was the only large monitor available for service, the other eight all being in dockyard hands. Favourable conditions for bombardment had largely disappeared with the onset of winter, so with the return of the other monitors Soult could be spared for a long refit at Portsmouth, which lasted from January to April 1918.

Soult’s role in the forthcoming Zeebrugge raid was a relatively minor one of diversionary bombardment with three of the 12in monitors. While waiting for the operation to take place she went out on the night of 17/18 April to fire on coastal batteries west of Ostende with Erebus, Terror and Prince Eugene, using M.26 as an aiming mark. Following up the Zeebrugge raid, a bombardment was made on 9 June by Soult and Terror with M.21 to harass enemy dredgers and salvage craft attempting to remove the blockships. The monitors opened fire from 27,000yd at 13.08 but, as the wind direction was unfavourable, no smokescreen could shield them. The enemy return fire soon became uncomfortably accurate, so after twenty-five rounds each the monitors retired to Dunkirk. Soult’s last bombardment of the war came on 29 July, when she and Gorgon, again with M.21 as aiming mark, took on the Tirpitz battery in cooperation with Allied artillery ashore. Although the target was only 28,500yd off, her guns had fired 210efc (equivalent full charges) each and could only reach this distance by heeling the ship. Flooding the bulges increased the effective gun elevation to 33 degrees, and she was able to fire ten rounds before a combination of inadequate stern anchor, faulty firing mechanisms and about thirty retaliatory rounds from Tirpitz forced her to retire.

The next few weeks were mainly spent on the Dover Barrage patrol, guarding the deep anti-submarine minefields. She was back at Portsmouth for docking on 13 September, and thus missed the heaviest bombardment of the war. By the time she was back at Dunkirk the Germans had evacuated the Belgian Coast, so she was sent round to Chatham to await a decision on her future, where she arrived on 25 October 1918.

Performance and Modifications

The news of Marshal Ney’s trials had come as a great disappointment to the Admiralty. Here was a ship, carrying two of the most powerful guns afloat, which was not only even slower than the earlier 7kt monitors, with machinery incapable of continuous running, but which was not even able to steer a defined course. As early as September 1915, Tudor, a gunnery specialist, had suggested removing her turret and installing it in a new monitor. Admiral H.B. Jackson, the new First Sea Lord, was in agreement about removing Ney’s turret, but suggested rearming both Ney and Soult with the 12in twin mountings from the pre-dreadnoughts Caesar or Illustrious. The alternative solution of re-engining Ney with steam reciprocating machinery was also considered. The existing engine and boiler rooms could accommodate a twin-screw installation of about 3,600ihp, but even this roughly doubled power would give at most 8kts.

However, Bacon’s urgent need for ships with guns of longer range than the existing 12in overrode these plans for modifying the Marshals. Ney was temporarily reprieved, while it was appreciated that Soult’s different engines might turn out to be more satisfactory. In service, however, Ney’s performance was quite as bad as her trials had foreshadowed. She could neither steam nor steer with any degree of certainty. The steering problems arose largely from the bluff lines aft, which produced a deadness of flow around the rudders and propellers. As a result she possessed neither directional stability nor any ability to correct a swing once it had been induced by excessive use of the helm. She excelled herself on 15 October, when entering Dunkirk harbour. Her steering gear failed, her engines refused to go astern and even dropping both anchors failed to stop her. She punched a neat semicircular hole 90ft across in the wooden pier, although she herself rebounded undamaged.

Despite their unsatisfactory performance in service, her MAN engines had run faultlessly on their 96hr testbed trials at Cowes in December 1914. The starboard engine had developed 752bhp at 190.5rpm, burning 0.487lb of oil per horsepower per hour, with a mechanical efficiency of 62 per cent. This was a good specific fuel consumption compared with steam reciprocators, but slightly higher than some other designs of diesel, partly owing to the power absorption of the shaft-driven air compressors and the large scavenge pumps below the pistons needed to work the four-stroke cycle efficiently. In service there was found to be a fault in the design of the reversing gear, which partly accounted for the engines’ erratic performance. Various modifications were tried, but the engines never proved sufficiently reliable for regular service.

Tweedie remained cheerful in the face of all these difficulties, but his crew were bitterly disappointed. They had had such high hopes of achievement and were disgusted at the failure of the ship due to no fault of their own. Their Lordships were not prepared to recognise that any of the blame was theirs in insisting on diesels and in not permitting any changes to an unsatisfactory hull form. Thus, even though the two primarily responsible, Churchill and Fisher, were no longer in office, it was ruled that none of Ney’s officers or men would receive any official recognition of their time of service in her; ‘a damnable injustice’, as Lt Morgan later wrote.

Tweedie proved a popular commanding officer. On occasion he himself would take the helm under tricky conditions, such was his feel for the ship. Life aboard Ney during her brief offensive career was certainly hectic, but there was time to entertain visiting French officers while based at Dunkirk. On spotting the framed wardroom picture of Marshal Ney they would leap to their feet, don their kepis and stand to attention in front of the portrait, saluting and solemnly intoning ‘Le Maréchal Ney, le brave des braves’. On the first occasion the British officers were somewhat disconcerted, but scrambled to their feet, hunted for their own caps and sheepishly mumbled ‘Le brave des braves’ in their best French accents. Thereafter the picture was usually removed temporarily while French officers were aboard.

The modifications that were eventually made to Ney in 1916 were not as extensive as originally envisaged. Although her turret was transferred to Terror, her diesel machinery was retained. In place of the 15in twin mounting a much lighter mounting was fitted; one of the two single 9.2in Mk VIII 40cal guns recently removed from the old first-class cruiser Terrible, the other being earmarked for Soult, although never fitted. Four single 6in QF were also transferred from Terrible and sited two on either side abreast the funnel. The director and topmast were removed, but a modest bridge structure was added to improve navigational facilities. She did not remain long in this state, and another extensive refit took place during 1916-17. The 9.2in was removed and mounted ashore in France, and Ney was given a uniform armament of six single 6in BL XI removed from the pre-dreadnought Hibernia. Two were sited on the centreline, one forward and one aft, while the other four were placed abreast the mast; each gun had one hundred rounds of ammunition. A fully enclosed bridge structure was provided, no doubt much appreciated by the cold and bored watchkeepers during the long months she lay at the Downs. The 12pdrs were removed and two new 3in HA fitted aft to augment her existing 2pdr. The only other noticeable change was the emergence of the bulge above the waterline, as the removal of some 1,100 tons net reduced her displacement to about 5,780 tons deep and her drafts to 7ft forward and 10ft aft.

Soult’s service performance was an improvement on Ney’s, though hardly spectacular. A cruising speed of only 5½kts, in waters where tidal currents reached 3kts and gales were frequent, meant that sometimes the quickest progress could be made by anchoring and waiting for better conditions, as otherwise she was inclined to be driven astern, or at least sideways. The two Marshals were often bracketed together when maligning diesel propulsion, but in fact Soult’s Vickers engines proved extremely reliable, quiet and free from vibration. Indeed, the replacements fitted in Trefoil in 1917 likewise gave excellent service, confirming the suitability of solid injection in four-stroke engines. The engines were usually supplied with either shale oil or Texas fuel oil, as used in submarine diesels. Endurance under ideal conditions was about 2,000 miles, but making allowance for oil for her boilers, weather, hull fouling and unusable fuel, the official figure was reduced to 1,490 miles. In practice, Soult never made a voyage of more than 200 miles without tug assistance, so this figure was never put to the test.

Soult’s visible modifications during 1916-17 were relatively few: two 6in QF II (one from Ney) and a 3in HA added on the forecastle deck, and the topmast struck. A better navigational position was built on the tripod mast above the turret level, painted in distinctive grey-and-white chequers. The main modification was not readily apparent; the raising of the axis of the 15in guns about 2ft to permit them to elevate to 30 degrees. 1918 saw further modifications; first, four single 4in BL IX replaced the 6in. The 4in not only had a longer range than the 6in, but a much faster rate of fire. Then later in the year came the really startling changes which transformed her from being merely bizarre in appearance into what must surely have been the RN’s ugliest ship. The most offending feature was a funnel doubled in height yet of the original diameter. Its proportions were thus those of a 30ft-long cigarette, totally disproportionate to the size of ship. Two 36in searchlights were added on tall lattice platforms abaft the funnel to replace the two 24in on the tripod mast. A control position was fitted aft and the conning tower removed. The latter was replaced by a platform carrying the two 12pdr, now converted to HA. The secondary armament was increased to eight single 4in distributed along the sides of the forecastle deck. Two single 2pdrs were retained on their platform aft, as well as two 3in HA at the break of the forecastle.

The problems of Marshal Ney formed one of the elements of the Churchill-Balfour controversy in the House of Commons in March 1916. Returning from France to make a speech in the Navy Estimates debate, Churchill attacked Balfour and the new Board of the Admiralty for the slowing down in the rate of construction. He compared the rapidity with which the monitor fleet had been completed with the subsequent delays in battleship construction. While he stretched a point when he claimed that the monitors had been finished in six months (the average time was eight months), there was some substance in his accusation. None of the five Royal Sovereigns had been completed, although contract completion dates had all been at the end of 1915. Balfour was stung to reply at length the next day, 8 March. He ridiculed Churchill for claiming credit for the speedy construction of the monitors while in the same breath criticising the delay with the battleships, pointing out that the former had only been achieved by using guns and mountings ordered for the latter. Balfour’s excuse about diversions of gun mountings was a bit thin, as it only applied to two out of the fourteen big-gun monitors, the Marshals, and he was quickly taken up on this point by Sir A. Markham, Liberal MP for Mansfield, who pointed out that the monitor guns had come from America. Yes, conceded Balfour, but not all of them. No mention was made of the fact that only one shipbuilder had a battleship in hand at the same time as monitors, namely Palmer. It is of course quite possible that Churchill had forgotten, or indeed had never been informed, that it had been two of Ramillies’ turrets which had been used, rather than those from Renown and Repulse, because in The World Crisis he describes the turrets as coming from the ‘furthest off battleships (now converted into battlecruisers)’. Ramillies’ completion was delayed for a year, but this was partly due to the fitting of bulges.

Although his case was scarcely any stronger than Churchill’s, Balfour proceeded to wade in with further criticism of the monitor fleet. Although they were doing good service, they added nothing to the strength of the Grand Fleet and, furthermore, they had design faults.

So hastily was the design of some of these vessels and so ill were they contrived to carry out their purpose that even now it has not been found possible to use some of them for the purpose for which they were originally designed. They are in process of being remodelled or remodelled so as to make them suitable for this amphibious warfare. The design was hasty, the execution was hasty and the result is therefore as might easily be expected not always satisfactory.’

To speak of ‘some’ of the monitors having to be remodelled was quite unfair, as such a description could only be applied with any accuracy to but one vessel, Marshal Ney. Markham again came to Churchill’s rescue, saying that although alterations had been made, they were not due in any way to the latter’s ‘hasty action’ but rather to ‘another cause’, which he did not specify. Presumably he meant that it would be unfair to blame Churchill for not foreseeing the failure of Ney’s diesels. However, it could reasonably be argued that it was rather foolhardy of Churchill and Fisher to authorise such an untried form of prime mover for a combatant ship in wartime, especially a design with no previous operational experience. There was no overriding necessity to have taken engines already under construction, as steam reciprocators could easily have been built in the time available, as witnessed by McKie & Baxter’s completion of Prince Rupert’s machinery in three months.

Of course, few of the MPs present could follow the significance of the allusions and vague accusations in the speeches, as the details of the construction programme of the battleships and monitors had not been made public and no ships’ names were mentioned during the debate. The outcome of this particular aspect of the debate was inconclusive, but at least 1916 did see the completion of six more capital ships.

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