Saturday 14 December 2013

When a line of enquiry meets a brick wall…

I read widely and, as befits my interest in the career of Admiral Sir Nichols Dawlish (1845-1918), I am particularly interested in naval affairs in the 1860-1918 period. A single reference to a person or event in a book or web-page can often spark my interest in learning more, often leading me down unexpected and fascinating paths. Given the wealth of resources on the Internet and my access to the storehouse of material in the wonderful London Library, I can usually follow the line of enquiry to a level of understanding and detail that satisfies my curiosity. “Usually” is the operative word however and on occasion I run into a “brick wall”, so that my curiosity remains aroused but unsatisfied.

A current example of such frustration is my curiosity about the life of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Lyne, (1870- 1955) who was the first man in the Royal Navy to rise from the lower deck to flag rank. His story is a fascinating one, but for me at least, has major gaps.

Lyne joined the service as a boy seaman, presumably in the early 1880s, and by 1902 had advanced to the warrant rank of Gunner – a respected one but holding a “warrant” from the Admiralty rather than a commission from the monarch. As such, warrant officers messed together and not in the wardroom and there was a wide social gulf between commissioned officers and warrant officers. It appears however that command of a vessel, albeit a small one, could be entrusted to a warrant officer and in 1902 Lyne was in command of Torpedo Boat TB.060, based at the Cape of Good Hope.

HMS Lightning 1877 - torpedoes were dropped rather than launched from tubes
TB.060 was one of a batch of twenty torpedo boats, TBs,041-060, which were built by Thorneycraft Ltd. in 1885-6 during one of the “Russian War Scares” which were an almost regular feature of the period. Thorneycraft had essentially invented the fast steam torpedo-boat, starting with HMS Lightning on 1876 and progressing with a series of ever more capable craft.

The TBs,041-060 series were known as.125-Footers, specifications as follow:

Displacement: 60 tons

Dimensions: 125 ft X 12.5 ft X6 ft

Machinery: 750 hp, making 21.5 knots maximum

Armament: Four 14” torpedo tubes in two pairs, Two twin-barrelled Nordenvelt guns

Crew: 16 men.

To enhance manoeuvrability these vessels had two rudders, one positioned to each side of the single-propeller and this seems to have given a “tunnel effect” that maximised the power delivery.

TB. 057 - sister of TB 060, which would have looked very similar

 By 1902 these vessels were obsolescent, despite reboilering, but many were to remain in service as patrol vessels during the Great War, being scrapped only in 1919-20.

HMS Dreadnought (1875) leaving Malta and cleared for action

 Gunner Lyne, as he was 1902, may have owed his command of TB.060 to the fact to the admiration of Admiral Sir Arthur Moore, Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station from 1901. In earlier years Lyne had served as coxswain to Moore when the latter was in command of HMS Dreadnought (1875) in the late-1880s.The 1901-02 period represented the latter stage of the Boer War, and one of the luminaries who visited it as an observer was Rudyard Kipling. Guerrilla activity by the Boers was disrupting rail travel at this time and in view of Kipling’s fame TB.060, under Lyne’s command, was used to carry him up South Africa’s east coast to minimise risk.(This information comes from an internet source but I’ve found no coverage of the incident in Andrew Lycett’s Kipling biography).

Shortly afterwards, in early 1902, TB.060’s propeller fell off when she was on “a most inhospitable coast”. I have not been able to determine where exactly this happened but in view of the vessel’s subsequent movements it appeared to have been on the west coast, north of Cape Town. Since TB.060 had only a single propeller she could no longer rely on steam power, and as wireless telegraphy was in its infancy, there was no way of sending a message for help. Loss must have appeared almost inevitable.

Undeterred however, Gunner Lyne managed to construct a jury rig, with which, under sail, he managed to get TB.060 and her crew back safely to the harbour at Saldhana Bay. The achievement was all the more remarkable since the length to breadth ratio of this fragile vessel was 10:1, which would have made handling under sail extremely difficult. I have not seen any photographs of the remarkable rig – if any exist – and am not sure what materials were employed.

Lyne’s achievement, and his indomitability, leadership and ingenuity were rightly regarded as outstanding. His reward was award of a commission and of promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. His career progressed in the following years and he was promoted to Captain in 1919, and advanced to Rear Admiral on retirement. He was knighted in 1935. As yet I have been unable to trace details of his assignments in these years. He does appear to have published a memoir called “Something about a sailor”, which I am now hoping to track down.

Admiral Lyne must have been an inspirational character but there are huge gaps in my knowledge about him. How and when did he join the navy? What was his career in the years prior to command of TB.060, for his progress in these years was as rapid as after his commissioning? Where did M.060 lose its propeller? What did the jury rig consist of? And what was his career path following his commissioning? Dis he experience discrimination due to his background and, if so, how did he cope with it?

I’m fascinated by this splendid man and I’ll keep investigating when I can. There is a very short Wikipedia entry on him but no photograph. The account I’ve given above is obviously incomplete. If any reader of this blog knows more about Admiral Lyne I’d be very glad to hear from them.


  1. Do you know anything of Lyle's early education? I think he may have attended Greenwich Royal Hospital School.

  2. Lyle should of course read Lyne.

  3. I seem to remember reading somewhere that he was "button man" at a masthead in a fleet review - in which case he would have joined as what was officially rated as a "boy". If so he would have had a real fight to educate himself and to work upwards - which he so impressively did. Best Regards: Antoine