Roger Keyes, 1st Baron Keyes - History of World War I - WW1 - The Great War

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World War 1 Picture - Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, 1918

Roger Keyes, 1st Baron Keyes Information

Roger Keyes, 1st Baron Keyes

The Lord Keyes

Place of birth: Punjab, British India
Place of death: Buckingham
Allegiance: United Kingdom
Service/branch: Royal Navy
Years of service: 1885-1935 & 1940-1941
Rank: Admiral of the Fleet
Commands held: HMS Opossum (1898-1899)
HMS Hart and HMS Fame (1899-1900)
HMS Bat (1901)
HMS Sprightly (November 1902)
HMS Venus (January 1908-1910
Commodore-in-Charge, Submarine Service (1912-1914)
HMS Centurion (1916 - June 1917)
Dover Patrol (October 1917 - January 1918)
Battle Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic Fleet (1919 - March 1921)
Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean (15 May 1925-1928)
Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth (29 April 1929 - 9 June 1931)
Director of Combined Operations (17 July 1940 - 27 October 1941)
Battles/wars: Boxer Rising
World War I
- Heligoland Bight
- Dardanelles
- Zeebrugge Raid
World War II
Awards: Barony (22 January 1943)
Baronet (1919)
GCB (1930)
KCB (26 April 1918)
KCVO (10 December 1918)
CB (19 June 1911)
CMG 1 January 1916)
CVO (30 March 1918)
MVO (24 April 1906)
DSO (3 June 1916)
MID (14 March 1916)
Legion of honour (5 April 1916)
Distinguished Service Medal (16 September 1919)
Order of Leopold II (2 August 1921)
Order of the Iron Crown, Second Class (24 February 1908)
Order of the Medjidieh, Second Class (4 June 1908)
Commander of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (22 June 1908)
Order of the Redeemer, Third Class (24 June 1909)
Other work: MP, Portsmouth North

World War 1 Picture - Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, 1918

Picture - Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, 1918

Admiral of the Fleet Roger John Brownlow Keyes, 1st Baron Keyes, Bt GCB KCVO CMG DSO RN (4 October 1872 - 26 December 1945) was a noted British admiral, with an active service life that included 19th-century African anti-slavery patrols to the Allied landings in Leyte in World War II. He was regarded throughout the British Empire as one of the great military heroes of his day.

Early days

Roger Keyes was born on 4 October 1872, at Tundiani Fort on the North-West Frontier Province of India, where his father commanded the Punjab Frontier force, and had achieved a reputation as an heroic figure. He spent his first five years here but, despite being far from the sea, he told his parents "I am going to be an Admiral".

Three years after the family had returned to England Keyes' father was given a new command in India. The parents decided to take the two youngest children with them, but to leave the five oldest, including Roger, in the care of an English country parson and his wife. The accommodations were less than his parents had been led to believe and the younger children were desperately lonely. The parson, however, introduced Keyes to hunting and fishing, which became lifelong passions, particularly hunting. Soon, he was sent to a preparatory school at Margate.


The parson's brother was an admiral and stories of the navy were prominent in the household. Keyes wrote his parents of his desire to be a sailor. In 1884 his father, now General Sir Charles Keyes, retired and returned to England. After some discussion and, against his father's wishes, Roger was permitted to join the Royal Navy in 1885.

Roger Keyes joined the training establishment, HMS Britannia, in the autumn of 1884, at the age of 12.

Keyes was small and delicate in health, but had an iron will. He took up fencing and rackets, sailed whenever he could and was in the thick of every boyhood scrap.

Anti-slavery patrol

In August 1887, Keyes was appointed to HMS Raleigh, a cruiser which was flagship of the Cape of Good Hope and West Africa Station. He reached Cape Town on 3 November and began his seagoing life. Raleigh was a full rigged sailing frigate of 5,200 tons with a propeller which could move her along at 16 knots (30 km/h). Under sail, she could make up to 11 knots (20 km/h).

In 1890, Keyes transferred to HMS Turquoise, a barque rigged corvette of 2,120 tons. The ship operated from Zanzibar on slavery suppression missions. There was much opportunity for action as small naval launches under junior officers were sent out for weeks at a time to patrol the coast, probing the estuaries and creeks where Arab slavers hid with their cargoes of young women and children, seized from coastal regions in Portuguese East Africa. Often gunfights ensued as the slavers tried to make their escape. He participated in the somewhat farcical 1890 expedition against the Sultan of Wituland.

Around the world

Keyes went back to England on three months' leave which he spent learning horsemanship, and taking up fox hunting.

Naval examinations followed, not Keyes' strongest suit. However, he managed to scrape through.

During this time, he was attached to various ships in the Channel Fleet, including a stint in the royal yacht HMY Victoria and Albert. He met Queen Victoria and the future King George V.

Then it was off to South America in October 1892, for service on HMS Beagle. Keyes was in South American waters until 1896. This was a very happy time in his life, as he had plenty of opportunity for polo and shooting in Argentina and Uruguay, where he was made very welcome by the local British residents. He thought of settling in Argentina, but the lady of whom he was enamoured chose another.

The early part of Keyes' tour was spent mostly in Brazil where a Royal Navy squadron was busy protecting British shipping and residents during an 1893-94 naval insurrection against President Floriano Peixoto. During the course of his duties, he became friendly with a rebel leader, Rear Admiral Saldanha da Gama.

After his return home, Keyes served on a training ship for new recruits. He was then given command of HMS Opossum, a new destroyer.


Keyes was then posted out to China to command another destroyer, HMS Hart, soon transferring to a newer ship, HMS Fame.

In April 1899, he went to the rescue of a small British force which was attacked and surrounded by irregular Chinese forces while attempting to demarcate the border of the Hong Kong New Territories. Keyes went ashore, leading half the landing party, and, while Fame fired on the besiegers, he led the charge which routed the Chinese and freed the troops.

This illustrates a trait Keyes showed all through his life, forcing himself into the centre of any fighting, whenever or wherever it might be.

In those days, the Royal Navy's China Squadron used Hong Kong as a home port during the winter, but went north to Weihaiwei on the Yellow Sea during the warm summer months. Keyes was there in late May 1900, cursing his luck for being in so out of the way a place while the Second Boer War was raging in South Africa. Reports soon started to come in to British authorities of disturbances throughout North China, aimed particularly against Chinese Christians, missionaries and European merchants. The anti-foreign agitators were called Boxers, and soon were threatening the foreign legations in Peking (Beijing) and the European settlement at Tientsin (Tianjin). Local British naval forces were sent to the aid of these two threatened communities.

The Boxer Rebellion: early phase

Early in the Boxer Rebellion, with poorly armed Westerners under siege in Peking and Tientsin, relief was essential, using whatever military forces that happened to be in China. Most British forces were in South Africa, occupied with fighting the Boers, while American forces were occupied fighting the Philippine rebels in the Philippine-American War. The role of the British China Squadron was vital.

Since both cities were inland, Tientsin some 30 miles (50 km) up a shallow river, the Pei Ho (Hai River), and Peking some 60 miles (100 km) further inland, battleships were of no use. But, destroyers could, at high tide, get over the bar and into the Pei Ho. The mouth of the river was defended by three modern Chinese forts (the Taku Forts), whose gunners were trained by Europeans. Government forces were beginning to side with the Righteous Harmony Society (the Boxers), so any attempt to go up the river might well draw hostile fire.

Four miles upriver from the forts was a modern dockyard and secured to its walls were four brand new German-built Chinese destroyers, the most up to date in Asia. They were fully manned and ready for action. Then came the railhead at Tongku (Tanggu), the tracks leading to Tientsin and Peking. Somewhat farther up the river was Fort Hsi-cheng (Xicheng).

Roger Keyes arrived off Taku in HMS Fame on 31 May 1900, with the whole squadron coming in two days later. Since Fame drew only 8 feet of water and could cross the bar into Taku during four hours of high tide twice per day, she was used to take messages and passengers back and forth to the railhead. As a result, Keyes became familiar with navigation on the lower stretches of the river. At this point he was able to pass the forts unmolested, though the Chinese gunners trained their guns on his ship.

The British commander, Admiral Edward Seymour, visited Tientsin on 3 June, and alarmed, ordered a small naval brigade to its aid. Fame was busy ferrying the troops upriver, past the forts. At the same time, a desperate message arrived from Peking requesting immediate help. Admiral Seymour took a huge gamble and set out by train for Peking from Tientsin in June with 1,000 British sailors and marines. Naval ships of other countries whose nationals were besieged in Peking contributed sailors as well, and soon the Admiral commanded a mixed force of 1,990 British, German, French, Russian, American, Italian, and Austrian sailors. Then the telegraph line to Peking went dead, and Boxers began tearing up the railway track in front of and behind the train well before Peking. Seymour was now in a dangerous situation.

The Boxer Rebellion: the capture of the Taku flotilla

Keyes, though a junior officer, began to show once again the foresight and leadership which so characterized his career. He determined that the capture of the Taku forts and the seizure of the Chinese destroyers was the key to the relief of Tientsin and Peking. With another junior officer, Commander Christopher Craddock, he made a land reconnaissance of the forts on 13 June to discover the best line of attack.

On 15 June, Keyes was sent by Admiral James Bruce, acting commander, to Tientsin to find out the state of defences and what had happened to Admiral Seymour and his force. He went by himself and boarded the train at Tongku, the sole European aboard. Though harassed, he somehow made it and reported to the local British commander, Captain Bayly and his second in command, Commander David Beatty. Also in Tientsin, helping to fortify the place, was an American, the civilian engineer Herbert Hoover, later President of the United States. Bayly reported Seymour's precarious situation, with the relief column needing relief itself. He urged Keyes to make it back to Admiral Bruce as quickly as possible to persuade him to seize the Taku forts. Keyes borrowed a revolver and set off. The only train leaving Tientsin headed towards the coast that night was a Chinese troop train, but it had already left by the time he got to the station.

Keyes commandeered a locomotive, bribed the engineer and fireman and set off. When they approached a station en route, they saw that the platform was covered with Chinese soldiers. The railway men lost courage and slowed down, until Keyes put his revolver to the engineer's temple, and they steamed through the trouble. When returning to the ship, he learned that the Chinese had laid mines in the river channel that afternoon.

With some difficulty, Keyes persuaded Bruce of the need to seize the destroyers and the forts. At an international naval gathering next morning, it was agreed to issue an ultimatum to the Chinese commander to hand over the forts temporarily to the Europeans. Should the demands not be agreed to, Keyes was given the task of seizing the destroyers at 2 a.m. the next morning with an attack on the forts to follow at daybreak.

Keyes scouted the Chinese ships in a lighter before the ultimatum expired, and developed a detailed plan to storm the ships and seize them intact. The four Chinese destroyers, moored to the wharf alongside the dry dock, were getting steam up and were fully manned. They displaced 280 tons and could make 32 knots (59 km/h), had six 3-pounder guns as well as two 18-inch (457 mm) torpedo tubes. To face them, Keyes had two slower British destroyers, Fame and Whiting (under LFT Colin Mackenzie) which displaced 390 tons and could make 30 knots (60 km/h) with an armament of one 12-pounder, five 6-pounders, and two 18-inch (457 mm) torpedo tubes.

The plan was simple. Each British destroyer had a boarding party on its forecastle armed with pistols and cutlasses, led by its captain, to seize the first and third destroyers and another boarding party in a whaler towed behind, led by the executive officer to seize the second and fourth ships.

But at 1 a.m., the Chinese forts opened fire. Keyes immediately put his plan into action and, under the cover of nightfall, all went off like clockwork. After a few scuffles on deck, the Chinese crews were driven ashore or captured below. There were no British casualties, but several Chinese were killed. He then led a sortie ashore and captured the dry dock, dispersing snipers. His orders were to take the captured ships to Tongku, which he did.

The Boxer Rebellion: The fort at Hsi-cheng

He was about to return downstream from Tongku to assist in the attack on the Taku forts, when a young British naval officer in charge of a river tug with stores and ammunition for the besieged troops in Tientsin came aboard. His orders were to make a run for Tientsin at daybreak, but his Chinese crew refused to leave for fear of being sunk by the guns of the fort upstream at Hsi-cheng. Inquiries with a Japanese gunboat captain told him that the fort had six modern 6-inch, quick-fire guns, more than a match for Keyes's two small destroyers.

Keyes then escorted the tug past the fort, which did not open fire. The supplies got through to Tientsin. But he was very aware that the fort could cut communications with Tientsin whenever it wished. By the time he got back to Taku, the three forts had been taken.

He attempted without success to convince Admiral Bruce of the need to take the fort at Hsi-cheng. But reports from Tientsin grew more alarming, with Admiral Seymour in a perilous situation, and no word from Peking. He tried in vain to interest the Russians whose small army of 2,000 was slowly making its way from Tongku to Tientsin. The Russians had the only wagons available and since they were shooting every Chinese person they met, coolies were not available. The Russians made it to Tientsin, but were stuck there, with messages arriving from Seymour asking for help. Supplies could no longer get by the fort at Hsi-cheng.

Getting permission for a cautious reconnoitering of the river above Tongku (but under no circumstances to hazard his ship), Keyes loaded the Fame with as many armed men as he could, anchored on an ebb tide off the fort and sheered into the bank. He sprang ashore, followed by a landing party of 32, armed with rifles, pistols, cutlasses and explosives. Surprise was complete, the main door of the fort was open, and a party of Chinese inside was scattered. The sailors quickly destroyed the gun mountings, and blew up the powder magazine, fleeing back to the ship in the nick of time. The same day, 25 June 1900, Admiral Seymour managed to fight his way back into Tientsin.

The Boxer Rebellion: Tientsin and Peking

After all his exploits, Keyes still managed to get himself into the thick of fighting throughout the rest of the campaign. He managed to obtain leave from the Fame for two days to run a tug and lighter with stores to Tientsin. While there, he joined an attack on some Chinese batteries at the Tientsin race course, being very impressed by the Japanese troops who led it. Further requests for leave to join the fighting were frostily rejected by Admiral Seymour.

However, his luck changed when troops from India arrived for the advance on Peking, led by an old friend of his father, General Sir Alfred Gaselee. Reluctantly, Seymour agreed to Gaselee's request that Keyes accompany the expedition as a naval aide-de-camp.

So it came to be that a young naval officer was the first man over the Peking walls, planting a Union Flag on the top. He was also the first to break through to the legations. For his bravery during the boxer rebellion, Lieutenant Keyes was promoted to the rank of Commander.

After some time to convalesce from diphtheria, Keyes resumed command of HMS Fame, and returned to Hong Kong through a dreadful typhoon. He was transferred home.

Destroyers, Admiralty, Rome, and submarines

After a few months leave at home, Keyes was appointed to the command of a new destroyer, HMS Bat, a 360-ton 30-knot (60 km/h) ship, similar to the Fame. He was stationed at Portsmouth and was second in command of the Devonport Destroyer Flotilla. He found the ships' upkeep and training exercises lax and soon his forceful personality made itself felt. He was in command of four of the ships and embarked on a rigorous scheme of training these in all weather using aggressive tactics. He brought in a like minded assistant, Commander Walter Cowan, who became a fast friend and a formidable warrior in his own right.

His efforts paid off when the ships under his command did very well in naval exercises. This led to an appointment at the Admiralty in the intelligence section. His role was to become familiar with the navies and coast defences of Italy, Japan, and Russia. In this capacity, he was called on to find out the facts surrounding the infamous Dogger Bank incident, when Russian ships en route to the Far East to fight the Japanese, opened fire on British fishing ships in the North Sea. He was called to testify before the International Court of Enquiry held in Paris in January 1905 , and his testimony on this occasion was seen as conclusive. Britain won the dispute and proper compensation was paid.

The time back in England enabled Keyes to pursue his passion for polo, a recreation at which he made the acquaintance of Winston Churchill. They became and remained good friends for the rest of their lives. He never missed a party attended by Miss Eva Bowlby, whom he had met in March 1903 when his ship had put in at Knoydart, her father's Scottish estate.

In early 1905, Keyes took up an appointment as naval attaché at Rome, Vienna, Constantinople and Athens, with his office at the British Embassy in Rome. On 10 April 1906, he married Eva Bowlby. They honeymooned on the Dalmatian coast and the Greek Isles.

In January 1908, Keyes took up command of HMS Venus, a second class cruiser serving with the Atlantic Fleet. This was a happy time for crew and captain. In 1910, Keyes was looking forward to command of an armoured cruiser, when he was offered the appointment of Inspecting Captain of Submarines. This was in the days of the infancy of submarines and the job was not his first choice. But he agreed and found himself in command of sixty-one undersea vessels.

Keyes had an office in the Admiralty, headquarters at Portsmouth and flotillas of submarines at Devonport, Harwich and Dundee. Each flotilla had a depot ship (an old cruiser). Though the position was initially regarded as a training role, Keyes's energy led it to become an operational command in 1912. The most effective submarines were based at Harwich, and in event of war, Keyes was to assume command of these, reporting directly to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. He was to be given, at the outbreak of war, two fast destroyers as part of his command, so as to be able to put to sea regularly to direct his submarines.

Keyes saw the worsening international situation in late July 1914 and cancelled all leave for his men. He moved his vessels and headquarters to Harwich to be closer to Germany and was ready for war when it broke out on 4 August 1914.

World War I: submariner

When World War I broke out, Keyes took command of the submarine force at Harwich on the south east of England. These submarines were involved in the first Battle of Heligoland Bight, in August 1914.

World War I: The Dardanelles

As Naval Chief of Staff to Vice-Admiral Sackville Carden, commander of the Royal Navy squadron off the Dardanelles during early 1915, Commodore Keyes was heavily involved in the organisation of the Dardanelles Campaign. In preparation for the forcing of the Dardanelles, Carden's fleet (including the newly dispatched HMS Queen Elizabeth) began to bombard the outer Turkish defences on 15 February.

However, after 15 days of slow progress, the bombardment was called off due to low ammunition stocks and fears of a newly laid Turkish minefield. Writing to his wife, Keyes expressed frustration at his superior's lack of imagination, arguing that "We must have a clear channel through the minefield for the ships to close to decisive range to hammer the forts and then land men to destroy the guns." Shortly afterwards, he volunteered to take charge of a minesweeping operation intended to clear the way for the bombarding ships.

After dark on 13 March, six trawlers and the Royal Navy cruiser Amethyst attempted to clear the Kephez minefield. What had been hoped as a turning point in the Dardanelles Campaign turned into an unmitigated failure, as the Turkish mobile artillery pieces battered Keyes' minesweeping squadron. Heavy damage was inflicted on four of the six trawlers, while the Amethyst was badly hit and had her steering gear damaged.

Upon hearing the news of his friend's failure First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill pressed for a greater scope of attack, Vice-Admiral John de Robeck (Carden's newly appointed successor,) decided to employ his entire battleship force in a daylight assault on the Narrows. The minesweepers were to clear the mines, while the main fleet of Dreadnoughts would serve as protection against the Turkish batteries. Once again, Keyes was chosen to lead the minesweeping force.

World War I: The Grand Fleet and Admiralty plans

After the heartbreak of the Dardanelles operation, Keyes applied for a transfer back to the Grand Fleet. He was in Salonika finishing up when news arrived of the Battle of Jutland. He returned to England immediately and took command of the battleship Centurion (1911), assigned to the 2nd Battle Squadron. He was promoted Rear-Admiral on 10 April 1917. In June he was made second in command of the 4th Battle Squadron, under Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. He flew his flag aboard HMS Colossus, Dudley Pound, captain.

World War I: The Dover Patrol

On 1 January 1918, Keyes took over command of The Dover Patrol. Prior to Keyes, the Dover Patrol had been commanded by Admiral Bacon and had succeeded in sinking two German U-Boats in the English Channel in the previous two years, but out of 88,000 crossings by ships only five had been torpedoed and one sunk by gunfire. After Keyes took control, he altered tactics, and the Dover Patrol sank five U-Boats in the first month after implementation of Keyes' plan.

World War I: Zeebrugge and Ostend

Toward the end of the war, he planned and led the famous 1918 raids on the German submarine pens in the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. Keyes ended the war as an acting Vice-Admiral.

Peacetime sailor again

For the first few months of peace Keyes remained at Dover, where there was much to do winding down the operation. His second son was born there.

In 1919, he was given command of the new Battle Cruiser Squadron, hoisting his flag at Scapa Flow in HMS Lion. By 1920, he was flying his flag in the new HMS Hood. Hood deployed briefly to the Baltic Sea in 1920, when trouble with the Bolsheviks was in the offing, but it soon blew over. When his term in this position was over he went on half pay for a year pending a new appointment as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. He and his wife took their first holiday in years, including time spent visiting the Belgian Royal family, friends of theirs. Keyes was brought back six months early to take up his new position.

His war services were rewarded by making him a baronet and giving him an award of £10,000.

In May 1925, Keyes took up a three year appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, the premier active command in the Navy. He held the command until the spring of 1928. Many commentators hold that this fleet achieved its peak of efficiency under the restless direction of Keyes. While there, he trained many of the younger officers who would achieve high command in World War II.

In May 1929, Keyes took up the position of Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, the most important Home Command the Navy has. But, he was very disappointed not to be made First Sea Lord in 1930. The new Labour Government emphasised disarmament, and Keyes was an outspoken advocate of a strong Navy. Sir Frederick Field was appointed in his stead.

His appointment as Admiral of the Fleet came in 1930. He hauled down his flag at Portsmouth on 9 June 1931, his last naval command. He was 58.

Keyes and his wife bought a country home at Tingewick, near Buckingham, close to good fox hunting. On half pay with a large family, he wrote his memoirs to make money. They were a success.

Member of Parliament and the fight for a strong navy

Sir Roger Keyes was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for North Portsmouth as a Conservative in January 1934. On the eve of the election, he was shocked to learn of the accidental death of his friend, King Albert I of Belgium. King George V asked Keyes to accompany the Prince of Wales to the funeral.

As an MP from the naval town of Portsmouth and a former career officer, it was to be expected that Keyes would concentrate on naval matters in Parliament. He fought disarmament and laboured mightily to have the Fleet Air Arm put back under the control of the navy. It had been put under the Royal Air Force in 1918 and was seriously neglected. Britain, from the front rank of naval aviation, had fallen well behind Japan and the United States by the mid-1930s. When the navy finally resumed responsibility in 1937, it was too late to repair the neglect of the interwar years. British aircraft carriers went into World War II equipped with such obsolete planes as the Gloster Gladiator fighter and the Blackburn Skua, at a time when the Japanese flew the Mitsubishi Zero. It was through no fault of Keyes. Britain was to pay heavily starting as early as the Norwegian campaign when the Gloster Gladiator was hopelessly outclassed by German land based aircraft.

Keyes was part of two parliamentary deputations which called on the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, in the autumn of 1936 to remonstrate with them about the slow pace of British rearmament in the face of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. The delegation was led by Sir Austen Chamberlain, a former Foreign Secretary and its most prominent speakers included Winston Churchill, Leo Amery and the Marquess of Salisbury.

He was opposed to the Munich agreement that Neville Chamberlain made with Adolf Hitler in 1938 and, along with Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Louis Spears and Duff Cooper, was one of the few who withheld support from the Government on this issue.

He served in the House of Commons until raised to the peerage as Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover in January 1943.

World War II: Belgian mission: part one

When World War II broke out, Keyes was very anxious to obtain active service. But all senior positions were filled, he was just short of his 67th birthday and he had made enemies with criticisms of senior naval officers in the period before the war. He continued with his "suggestions" in Parliament during the first month of the war, especially deploring the loss of an aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous, on 17 September 1939, sent on an antisubmarine mission he thought foolish. His former Chief of Staff, Dudley Pound, now First Sea Lord, was especially wounded by the criticism.

But a job was soon at hand. Keyes had long been friends with the King of the Belgians, Leopold III. It was his habit to visit the King at his Palace in Brussels from time to time.

Belgium was allied with France after World War I, but in 1937, fearing the rise of Adolf Hitler, and seeing the French acquiesce in the German occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the Belgians announced their conversion to neutrality. They cut off all the flow of information from the Belgian Army to the French Army. But in the fall of 1939 Leopold was worried. What if the Germans attacked France through Belgium? Would the British and French quickly come to his aid? Brussels was filled with German spies and he dared not openly approach the Allies, lest he give Hitler a pretext to attack. He would not risk an Allied military conference. He looked for an informal approach and thought of his old friend, now retired. Keyes knew everyone in authority in Britain. Leopold trusted him.

One evening in mid-October 1939, Keyes had a visitor at his London home in Chelsea. It was an emissary from the King of the Belgians, asking him to visit Brussels right away. Keyes quickly obtained official approval for the visit and was briefed on Britain's position vis-x -vis Belgium.

He started for Belgium immediately and met with the King on 18 October in Brussels. The King once more stated his desire to keep Belgium out of the war and to refrain from any act designed to antagonize Hitler. He felt that his army was much stronger than in August 1914 and could hold off the Germans until the Allied armies could arrive. How soon would the Allies arrive? Keyes responded that the Allies were not prepared to leave France unless they were given specific information on Belgian plans, deployments and defences. He finally persuaded the King that the necessary information and planning could be done quietly between the British military attaché in Brussels and the King's military advisor, General Van Overstraeten.

This understanding obtained by Keyes was of great value to Allied planning. Keyes was subsequently productively used as a link between Leopold and the British Government. But in January 1940, in the Mechelen Incident, a German plane losing its way over Belgium, crashed in the country, carrying the German plans for an attack on Belgium. Word of this got out and many Belgians publicly made anti-German statements. Certain Belgian officials carelessly gossiped about Keyes' visits and the French asked for a similar liaison. As a result, German threats grew more menacing and Keyes discontinued his visits.

But he had already obtained permission for Allied staff officers to visit their counterparts in Brussels provided they wore civilian clothing and had civilian passports.

World War II: Norway and the fall of Chamberlain

The German assault on Norway on 9 April 1940, roused Keyes. It was a campaign that related to much of his experience - amphibious landings, as at the Dardanelles; scope for using small boats and storming positions from the sea, as at Zeebrugge; and the using of initiative, as during the Boxer Rebellion. But most of all, Keyes was frustrated by a lack of an aggressive spirit in the war to date. Here was a chance for decisive action.

Keyes reached an independent conclusion that the regaining of Trondheim was the key to victory in Norway. He immediately advocated the forcing of Trondheim Fjord by battleships and the landing of a military force to recapture the city. Keyes sought an interview with Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and finally got one on 16 April. He submitted an outline plan to seize the city and offered to lead the expedition. If the Admiralty did not wish to hazard newer ships, he would take in old battleships.

The chiefs of staff reached similar conclusions, with the addition of subsidiary landings north at Namsos and south at x…ndalsnes. However, they dithered back and forth about whether to send capital ships into Trondheimsfjord. After yes and no, they sent the troops into Namsos and x…ndalsnes and then decided not to force the fjord. This was the worst decision as German destroyers dominated the fjord, no airfields were seized to provide air cover and troops earmarked for the centre prong were never landed. The southern prong was soon drawn into fighting further south and the commander of the northern prong, Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart, who pushed through to the fjord, found his troops shelled by destroyers, attacked from the air and by ski troops, with German ships landing soldiers in his rear.

The combination of Roger Keyes as naval commander and Adrian Carton De Wiart, V.C. as military commander at Trondheim might have dramatically changed the course of the Norwegian campaign. Though both men were relatively old for active service, they were both aggressive. Whatever happened, there would have been no half measures.

When both columns were evacuated in early May 1940, Keyes was apoplectic. There was shock in Britain. Parliament gathered to debate matters on 7 and 8 May 1940. The first Backbencher to speak was Keyes. See Norway Debate for fuller details.

Making a dramatic entrance in the full uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, including medals, Keyes gained the full attention and respect of the House of Commons. He could speak on this topic with greater authority than anyone else in the country. He said that he dressed in uniform because he wanted to speak for his friends among the fighting sea-going navy, who were very unhappy. It was not the fault of the Navy. Leadership of the war effort was the problem. It is commonly felt that the intervention of Keyes was the beginning of the end for the Government of Neville Chamberlain. Other speakers followed his attack, notably Leo Amery and David Lloyd George. The government fell two days later on 10 May 1940, and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister.

The Belgian mission: part two

When the Germans invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940, Keyes was sent as personal liaison between the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the King of the Belgians, who was also commander-in-chief of the Belgian forces.

World War II: the Commandos

During World War II, Keyes was the first Director of Combined Operations, the Commandos. His tenure was from 17 July 1940, to 27 October 1941. He found this a frustrating job, as he was dependent on other branches and units of the armed forces for troops, equipment, transport, air cover and information. These commands were naturally not wishing to divert resources to something new and untried.

However Keyes laid the foundations for the Commando's later success. He was 69 years old and it was time to slow down.

Politics and goodwill tour

Keyes remained active in the House of Commons after leaving the Commandos and also spent time working for the National Savings Campaign. During this period, he suffered a detached retina and slowly went blind in one eye.

He entered the House of Lords on being created Baron Keyes on 22 January 1943.

In July 1944, at the request of the Government, Keyes undertook a goodwill tour of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This made sense, for though he is not a well known figure now, during the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the British Empire's greatest heroes.

Keyes and his wife travelled via the United States, staying for a few days en route with Bernard Baruch on Long Island. After a visit to an ailing General John Pershing, they went on to Canada, making speeches in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. From here he went on to Australia and New Zealand, as well as touring war zones in the Pacific. But his health was going fast now. His heart was giving out.

Keyes reached home in April 1945, having logged 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in his goodwill tour.

Family life and last days

Ill health prevented him doing much to help his beleaguered old friend, Léopold III of Belgium, at the end of the war. His life was ebbing away.

Roger Keyes and his wife were happily married and had five children, three daughters and two sons, as well as a number of grandchildren. In later years they maintained homes in the country at Tingewick, England and in the London district of Chelsea.

In November 1941, his eldest son, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes, VC, MC, CdeG, Scots Greys, was killed in action at Beda Littoria, Libya, during the famous commando raid on the Headquarters of the General Officer Commanding the German Forces in North Africa - at the time General Erwin Rommel.

Keyes died on 26 December 1945, at Buckingham, England. He was 73 years old. His daughter Katherine maintained that his death was caused by pneumonia brought about by him being flown "too high" in an unpressurised aircraft during the goodwill tour. Keyes always had weak lungs and never recovered from the damage caused in the flight. After a funeral at Westminster Abbey, he was buried at Dover in a cemetery reserved for those who fell at Zeebrugge. He is commemorated, along with his eldest son, on a plaque in the Crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

He was succeeded in the barony by his younger son Roger George Bowlby Keyes.

Keyes's papers were acquired by the British Library in 1978.

Honours and awards

Barony - 22 January 1943 Baronet - 1919 Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath 3 June 1930 (KCB - 26 April 1918, CB - 19 June 1911) Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order - 10 December 1918 (CVO - 30 March 1918, MVO - 24 April 1906) Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George - 1 January 1916 Distinguished Service Order - 3 June 1916 Mention in Despatches - 14 March 1916 Commandeur, Legion d'Honneur (France) - 5 April 1916 Distinguished Service Medal (United States) - 16 September 1919 Grand Cross, Order of Leopold (Belgium) - 2 August 1921 (Grand Officer - 23 July 1918) Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 (France) - 23 July 1918 Order of the Iron Crown, Second Class (Austria-Hungary) - 24 February 1908 Order of the Medjidieh, Second Class (Turkey) - 4 June 1908 Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus (Italy) - 22 June 1908 Order of the Redeemer, Third Class (Greece) - 24 June 1909

Leigh Rayment's Peerage Pages
Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs

Further reading

Halpern, Paul G. (ed.). The Keyes Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge. London: Allen & Unwin. 1914-1918 (1979), ISBN 0-04-942164-6 1919-1938 (1981), ISBN 0-04-942165-4 1939-1945 (1981), ISBN 0-04-942172-7
1914-1918 (1979), ISBN 0-04-942164-6
1919-1938 (1981), ISBN 0-04-942165-4
1939-1945 (1981), ISBN 0-04-942172-7

Keyes, Roger. Naval Memoirs, 2 vols. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1934 and 1935.
Keyes, Roger. Adventures Ashore and Afloat. London: George Harrap & Co., 1939.
Keyes, Roger. The Fight For Gallipoli. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1941.
Keyes, Roger. Amphibious Warfare and Combined Operations, Lees Knowles Lectures. Cambridge: University Press, 1943.
Aspinall-Oglander, Cecil. Roger Keyes. London: The Hogarth Press, 1951.
St John-McAlister, Michael. 'The Keyes Papers at the British Library', Electronic British Library Journal

More aircraft.

Source: WikiPedia

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