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News > Pangbournian Stories > Book Reviews > Book Review - Salt Horse by Robin Knight

Book Review - Salt Horse by Robin Knight

Ewen Southby-Tailyour reviews Salt Horse, the memoir of a maverick Admiral Claude Lionel Cumberledge, edited by Robin Knight
Salt Horse
Salt Horse

Any book written or edited by Robin Knight (56-61) will not disappoint and Salt Horse is no exception!

Rear-Admiral Claude Lionel Cumberlege’s diaries are crammed full with colourful stories, dozens upon dozens of colourful stories, that Robin has so skilfully edited. The admiral led a remarkable and unconventional life both within the Royal and Royal Australian Navies and as a ‘civilian’; so remarkable that it is perhaps surprising that his account has taken so long to reach the public. It was originally written between 1936 and 1938 before gathering dust.

The anecdotes, so vibrantly recounted by the admiral and so skilfully knitted together by Robin, are too numerous to list but they start with a most descriptive, and surprisingly sympathetic account of Royal Navy officer training in 1889 when he was just twelve. As he was to do throughout his long life, he died aged 86, he made the very most of every situation.

One apposite quote from his training days centres on beagling, after which the rare luxury of a hot bath was mandatory. However, the admiral recalls, provided you returned on board covered with rich, red Devon soil even if you had been nowhere near a hound, a hot bath could be enjoyed. As he declares, ‘It is always good for the wits to outmanoeuvre taskmasters’. True to his word he was to outmanoeuvre many more taskmasters. It is also fair to add that Claude Cumberlege knew how to enjoy a run ashore, with the ensuing scrapes, from almost his first day in the navy to his last, and they did not end then!

How he came to command nine torpedo boats in Gibraltar is a serious lesson in serendipity! Torpedo Boat TP 99, from which he commanded this small flotilla, was his first command of a further 12 warships without a break from 1905 to 1921 while, in his words, ‘Growing no corns on my backside through sitting on an office stool. From the day that I joined that perfect little vessel until the day, in 1922, that I was invited to quit His Majesty’s Active Service, except for a few weeks on gunnery and torpedo courses, I was continually in command of Her/His Majesty’s ships of war.’

After seven RN commands, including his last, the destroyer HMS Lurcher then the fastest ship in the navy, he was loaned to the Royal Australian Navy and never looked back. Lurcher had suited his personality perfectly for he is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) thus: ‘He was handsome, unconventional, dashing and breezy, and his courage, initiative and lack of 'frill' inspired respect and affection. He expressed himself in very direct language and his letters and written reports were always precise and succinct.’

Following Lurcher, he then spent the whole of the First World War commanding increasingly larger RAN ships; four out of these five commands were cruisers all of which gave him the best and most varied war possible while those characteristics, described so clearly in the ADB, endeared himself very much to the Australian way of life!

This is the story of, indeed, a maverick but a highly professional, if eccentric, one who was deeply involved with the development of the Royal Navy between 1889 and 1913 and, of more significance, the Royal Australian Navy between 1913 and 1922. From the very beginning a reader cannot fail to appreciate that they are in the company of a genuinely remarkable man whose wonderful humour and sense of the ridiculous, along with his undoubted ability as a leader, helped him rise to flag rank by ‘living off his wits’. He never missed an opportunity to command a warship even if that required, as it so often did, a considerable dose of skulduggery usually aimed directly at a patient and forgiving Admiralty.

I cannot help offering just two vignettes which will leave the reader ‘wondering’! Sailing to Australia in the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s RMS Orontes Claude Cumberlege describes the change of life on board once the liner had passed through the Suez canal. ‘The good ship Orontes wandered into Port Said and passed that invisible curtain that seems to drop behind one with a click as the ship steams into Suez Roads….There is more sitting around late in the delicious heat of the falling wind. One finds oneself in cabin number 158 when one ought to be decently tucked up in cabin number 159….’

The second tale involved three months of paid leave having been in the Mediterranean for five years. ‘The months were uneventful except in one important particular. The ‘important particular’ was a woman a year or so younger than myself called Lenore, the mistress of a city magnate. She said she was the daughter of a king. Lenore seduced me, I, who had been married for nearly seven years and who never, never looked outside my wedding ring. Well, there it was, and there was nothing to be done about it until the cash petered out and my leave with it.’ He was, after all, only human although, as Robin explains in a lengthy and detailed footnote, there was rather more to this story than the admiral was prepared to admit, even to his diary!

There are so many more quotable quotes in this book that I defy any reader, once started, to not stop until page 174, in one sitting! Robin must have had such fun editing Admiral Claude Cumberleges’s diaries and in doing so has kept alive the memory of an extraordinary man, naval officer, yachtsman, entrepreneur and, always, a true bon vivant.

Retirement from the Royal Navy did not herald any lack of pace, if anything life became more hectic. For some years the admiral and his family (he had a complicated personal life!) cruised the Mediterranean in two fine yachts and later owned a house in Cap d’Antibes. Then, in 1939, he offered his services to the Royal Navy but, with no appointments available, instead he joined a Home Guard platoon in Sussex. Sadly, due to major abdominal operations, this was a short lived episode. With the war’s end he and his second wife returned to Cap d’Antibes where, needing money to return to their pre-war life style, they invested in various unlikely businesses such as bars, discos and properties both on the Riviera and in the ski resorts. Their social life was certainly exotic for it included such as Noel Coward, Prince Aly Khan and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In 1960 they moved to Majorca where the admiral died in 1962 aged 86. A life very well lived indeed.

Robin has also chosen a wide range of photographs of the ships and characters that dotted the admiral’s life, doing his subject an enormous, if belated, favour. Additionally, almost every page has at least one footnote, each a new story in itself, for Robin has not just edited the diaries but has also carried out considerable research to add context and depth.

Many OPs will know that the naval service has a signal of congratulations for a job supremely well done. Very sparingly given by a senior officer the much-coveted flag hoist is BRAVO ZULU. So it is BZ to Admiral Claude as well as a BZ to Robin for so assiduously and painstakingly editing the admiral’s words into an eminently readable, thoroughly entertaining and uplifting book. As I said at the beginning, you will not be disappointed.

As an end note to this review, readers will discern that Robin Knight also wrote the biography of Admiral Claude’s son and Old Pangbournian in his book The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege, SOE.

by Ewen Southby-Tailyour (55-59)

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