Roger Keyes was born in Tundiani Fort, India on the 4th Oct 1872. He entered the Royal Navy in 1885 later to rise in the ranks to Commander in 1900 following action against the Boxer rebellion in China. Later as Commodore, in charge of submarines from 1910 to 1914, he made a significant contribution to the British victory in the Battle of Heligoland Bight (Aug 28 1914).
In 1915 he was appointed Chief of Staff for the unsuccessful Dardanelles expedition. Two years later, as Director of Plans at the Admiralty, he was instrumental in "discouraging" German U boats from operating in Dover Command waters after the entrances to Zeebrugge and Ostende harbours were blocked in a raid. He was knighted after the Armistice and thereafter held a number of commands - Commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and Commander in Chief Portsmouth. However, he failed to gain the highest office of First Sea Lord due, in part, to a lack of political support for his plans to expand the navy between the wars. He was also, arguably, too young for WW1 and too old for WW2. His last appointment ended in 1931. [Photo - Keyes and Churchill watching a Commando Exercise on the River Clyde, Scotland in 1941.]
Such was the public adulation following the Zeebrugge operation that the remainder of his life was, to an extent, an anti climax. He became a member of Parliament for Portsmouth in 1934 until his elevation to the Peerage in 1943. In May 1940 he served as liaison between the King of the Belgians and the British Government and strongly defended the Belgians position when their capitulation was blamed for the defeat of the Expeditionary Force in northern France and its hasty withdrawal at Dunkirk. As he approached the age of 68 he was given a final chance to apply his undoubted knowledge, skills and experience when his good friend, Winston Churchill, appointed him to the post of Director of Combined Operations.
Keyes inherited the directive (job description) from his predecessor General Bourne, but his interpretation of the role was a whole lot different. "Director" indicated power and control over the resources of Combined Operations. His direct line of communication to the Minister of Defence (Churchill), simply confirmed, in his mind, his autonomy. Towards the end of August 1940 Keyes moved his staff out of the Admiralty into offices in Richmond Terrace, London, henceforth known as Combined Operations HQ (COHQ). He set about restructuring his command, drawing on senior staff from the three services and placing them under his direct control. This unorthodox approach was a thorn in the flesh of traditionalists from the three services but, under the protection of Churchill, Keyes' approach prevailed - at least for a while.
History was to prove the three services could work together, efficiently and effectively, as a combined force in pursuance of a common purpose. Freed from the constraints of the disparate internal procedures of the three services and inter-service protocols, more was achieved in less time, than would otherwise have been the case. However, a little over a year later Churchill redefined the post of Director of Combined Operations to Combined Operations Advisor to the Chiefs of Staff - a change that was to have drastic consequences for Keyes. He was unable to accept the loss of status as he perceived it to be. An exchange of letters with Churchill followed but it was clear that no resolution was possible and, with a heavy heart, Churchill replaced Keyes with a younger, more diplomatic officer by the name of Mountbatten.
In the final exchange of letters between the two old friends Churchill wrote; " I need not waste words on the pain and labour this matter has caused me." In reply Keyes wrote; "Please don't feel pain on my account, I have none. I only grieve to have let down my splendid Commandos." Despite such negative thoughts Keyes had in fact achieved a great deal in his 15 months as Director of Combined Operations. His departure was mourned by his beloved Commandos who shared much of his fighting spirit and independent thinking.
Roger John Brownlow Keyes or Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover died on Dec 26th 1945 in Buckingham, England. He was laid to rest among his fallen Zeebrugge comrades in the small cemetery of St John's Church, Dover, England.
Perhaps Keyes' attitude to life can be gleaned from a single line he wrote in the fly leaf of a book he sent to his friend Haydon...
"He most prevails who nobly dares."
The Lessons of Naval History - the text of a speech made Keyes to The Empire Club of Canada on 4/9/34 when he was Admiral of the Fleet.
Roger Keyes; a biography of
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Keyes of Zeebrugge and Dover, G.C.B., K.C.V.O., C.M.G.,
D.S.O. C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, London, Hogarth Press, 1951. xv, 478 p. illus. 23
Commandos 1940 -1946 by Charles Messenger 1985. Published by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
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