When Frightened, Use Full Speed

Advice given by Admiral Sir John Tovey to Captain Rory O’Coner. Because of the many positions he had occupied in the navy, he had not had much experience in commanding a ship. He asked Admiral Tovey for advice who said,

“don’t be proud.”

“ask questions.”

“When frightened, use full speed.”

Tragically, O’Coner died in action. He was a fighting sailor and probably never frightened very much.

Captain Rory O’Coner was a very capable and very popular officer in the Royal Navy in the 1930s. After his several years as the Commander (second in command or executive officer) of HMS Hood he wrote: Running a Big Ship on ‘Ten Commandments. 

This book became one the most influential books on the management of a warship written in the 20th Century and a bible amongst Royal Navy officers of the 1930s onward.

O’Coner named is spelt in two different ways with “O’Connor” being the most common. However, on the cover of his biography, A TORCH AMONG TAPERS – The Life and Career of Captain Rory O’Conor RN, his last name is spelt O’Conor. The book was written by his daughter so I presume she would have known.




HMS Neptune, 1937.

(Photo courtesy of Australian War memorial collection)

In 1940, O’Coner was appointed as captain of the Leander class light cruiser HMS Neptune largely manned by a ship’s company drawn from the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy.

On 19 December 1941, the ship along with several others,  ran into a newly laid Italian minefield off Tripoli in the Mediterranean. Neptune hit two mines which damaged her severely. While trying to back out of the minefield, she hit two more mines, rolled over and sank.

Other ships had hit mines and no one could get close to HMS Neptune, in fact O’Coner had instructed them to keep clear.

Out of a ship’s company of 767, only one crewman survived.



Admiral Sir John Tovey KCB, KBE DSO, Commander in Chief Home Fleet, on board his flagship, HMS King George V, November 1942. Standing to his right is his secretary, Paymaster Commander R N Palford (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/