Royal Navy Battleship Stoker Shags Sheep Says Thought It Was WREN in Duffel Coat

Caught in a Compromising Position With A Sheep



HMS King George V enters Apra Harbor, Guam, with sailors in formation on deck. 1945. 

(Official US Navy photograph)


From Hands to Actions Stations, the war memoir of Lt. Commander Peter Poland, RN.

In late May of 1941, Peter Poland found himself aboard the battleship HMS King George V while she was steaming to stop the Bismarck. Battleship HMS Rodney had steamed to join KGV and as the Rodney appeared and steamed past KGV to take up station astern, the sailors on the upper deck of the King George V began to bay like sheep at the Rodney.


Young Peter was quite surprised at this behavior. He was informed that one year past, a stoker from HMS Rodney had been discovered in a comprising position with a sheep on one of the small islands around the fleet anchorage in Scapa Flow.

Writes Peter, “rumour had it that at his subsequent court martial he had pleaded that he thought the sheep was a Wren  in a duffle coat. (Wrens were women in the Royal Navy). Since then and for the rest of her life, any time either Rodney herself or one of her ship’s boats was sighted, it would be greeted with a chorus of ‘Baas’. Now, even though action was imminent, there was no exception.”

This is quite an interesting memoir. Poland was from a very wealthy and prominent family but suffered through what he found to be incredibly dull years at the naval training academy at Dartmouth. He went onto to serve aboard various ships and spent almost the entire war at sea.


HMS Rodney

HMS Rodney at sea. She was summoned by C-in-C Home Fleet, Sir John Tovey, during his pursuit of the Bismarck. Both HMS Rodney and her sister ship, HMS Nelson, were armed with 16 inch guns, the largest in the Royal Navy. Built to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty, and known as “treaty battleships” their main batteries were mounted in three turrets on the foredeck, an unusual configuration to say the least. The aft turret, just meters to the fore of the bridge structure, could not be fired at the furthest arc either port of starboard since the blast would shatter all the glass in the bridge structure. These were the only battleships in the Royal Navy ever designed in this manner.

Invergordon Mutiny of the Royal Navy – Part 7

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The British Admiralty in London, 1927.

From this building, Their Lordships of the Admiralty debated whether to recommend to the Government that Royal Marines from other ships and naval bases in Great Britain be concentrated in the hills overlooking the Invergordon anchorage. Once in place, artillery would be brought forward and the Royal Marines would bombard the Atlantic Fleet into submission. The minutes of this critically important meeting of the Board of the Admiralty are missing from the public record or have not been released.

Bringing in Royal Marines from other naval units to enforce order and discipline would have caused bloodshed and created huge problems for the British Admiralty which already had enough problems. Something long forgotten now but all too well remembered then was this: both the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Imperial German government began as mutinies by sailors against their governments.

British Royal Marines in 2012.

Alan Ereira, author of The Invergordon Mutiny published in 1981, wrote one of the few books on the subject published decades after the event when more records were available:

Such a plan seems quite incredible, but there are indications that this idea had some approval at the very highest levels of government… the King’s staff at Balmoral (the Scottish highland estate of the British monarch) were kept informed by telephone… the King would need to be kept in the picture, as Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, and as a monarch who happened to regard the navy as his first love and his private property.

Another puzzle comes from The Invergordon Mutiny. Ereira writes that on the evening of September 15, 1931, records of the Royal Household show that King George V dined alone with a Captain S. R. Mallet. Most curiously, the author says:

…Captain S.R. Mallet… is something of a mystery figure… he does not exist in the Army or Navy lists…

There is speculation that the man may have been Admiral Sir John Kelly who was both a personal friend of the King and a man known to have a sure touch with the Lower Deck. However, the Admiralty had never considered appointing Kelly as C-in-C Atlantic Fleet. In fact, he had been retired some months before the Mutiny.

The steps by which Kelly came to be appointed seem to be a secret still. There is every reason to believe that he was placed in command on the personal insistence of George V, to diffuse the crisis and sort out the Atlantic Fleet.

Four Kings all in naval uniform. King Edward VII of the United Kingdom (right) together with his son Prince George, the Prince of Wales, later George V (left), and his grandsons, Prince Edward of Wales, later Edward VIII, and Prince Albert of Wales, later George VI. Taken by Queen Alexandra, Edward VII’s wife. Printed in Queen Alexandra’s Christmas gift book, published for charity by the Daily Telegraph, London, 1908.

There is a long connection between the British Royal Family and the Royal Navy. As a 12 year old boy, then holding the title Prince George of Wales, the future King George V joined the Royal Navy’s cadet training ship HMS Britannia in September of 1877. He served on active duty in the Royal Navy until 1892. When he was born, he was third in line to the throne and there was no expectation he would become king. He happily intended to pursue an active career in the Royal Navy but that dream came to an end with the death of his older brother from influenza in 1892. From then on George was in the line of direct accession to the throne and after the death of his father, Edward VII, in 1910, George ascended the throne as George V.

His second oldest son, who came to throne as George VI after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, had served as a turret officer aboard HMS Collingwood during the famous battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. (Much of this story is very well told in the recent movie, The King’s Speech.)

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Elizabeth II, served on active duty in the Royal Navy in World War Two as a young officer and participated in a number of combat actions against the enemy.

His second son, Prince Andrew, younger brother of Prince Charles, served on active duty in the Royal Navy for 21 years and fought in the Falkland’s War.

[Source: The Invergordon Mutiny by Alan Ereira. Images courtesy of NUCIUS, British Ministry of Defence, and Wikipedia.]

Invergordon Mutiny of the Royal Navy – Part 1

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Headline in the New York Times 9.16.1931

On September 15, 1931, mutiny broke out amongst the ratings aboard ships of the Royal Navy Atlantic Fleet – their main battle fleet (in WW1 times, this was known as the “Grand Fleet”). One can scarcely believe sailors on storied warships such as HMS Hood, HMS Nelson, HMS Valiant, HMS Rodney, and others refused orders to put to sea and yet, they did. The event caused panic at the highest levels of the British government and a bitter division in Parliament.

Many speculate only the personal intervention of King George V kept the situation from deteriorating completely. The cause of the mutiny – a dramatic cut in the wages of lower deck ratings, that is, those sailors below the rank of Petty Officer. The lower deck comprised a majority of a ship’s crew.

Valiant - Copy

Royal Navy battleship HMS Valiant, the first ship of the Atlantic Fleet at the Invergordon anchorage whose crew refused to obey orders to put to sea for maneuvers. On September 15, 1931, the sailors who had the upcoming watch, refused to leave their hammocks. HMS Valiant was a Queen Elizabeth Class battleship commissioned February 19, 1916. Main battery: eight 15 inch guns. She was scrapped in 1948.

From a confidential report to Their Lordships of the Admiralty by Rear Admiral Tomkinson, who served as acting C-in-C Atlantic Fleet during the mutiny, since the Admiral in permanent command had taken ill and been sent to hospital ashore:

…At 08.47 VALIANT… reported that there were only sufficient hands to keep steam for slow speed, and that she could not proceed at present.


HMS Valiant, photographed following her 1929-30 refit. She is carrying a Fairey III-F floatplane on her fantail catapult. This catapult was only carried during 1930-33.


The serving of the rum ration was accompanied by much ceremony and the rum was served from a cask with brass letters reading “The King God Bless Him” (changed when there was a Queen). This was done so the men would understand the rum ration was a gift from the Crown. Furthermore, the men had their own tin cups for the rum and rarely drank it all down at once. Those who didn’t drink either traded their rum ration for cigarettes and other items or didn’t take it and had the cost added to their pay. Royal Navy officers I have interviewed have told me that the rum ration caused endless problems because it was so strong that many of the men became inebriated and committed breaches of discipline.


Nonetheless, a combination of heavy rum aboard and beer ashore, combined with their unexpected cuts in pay, did not create a harmonious situation. HMS Valiant was already an unhappy ship with a brand new crew and an uninspiring and distant Captain and equally uninspiring Commander with both men lacking what the US military terms “command presence.”

On Royal Navy battleships, battlecruisers, and aircraft carriers, the office of Commander wasn’t necessarily his rank, the office was a combination of First Lieutenant and second-in-command. In the US Navy this person is known as the Executive Officer. The Commander was in charge of the day to day of the ship and was the most senior officer seen by the crew.

HMS Valiant had “paid off” in 1929, that is, she returned from her commission and all the officers and crew then left the ship. Commissions would last as long as three years and during that time, on a foreign station and not based in the Great Britain, no one aboard saw their families or loved ones, except for officers who had enough money to rent a home for their family in the port they were assigned to.

[Source:The New York Times. Images courtesy of The Invergordon Archive, The Naval Historical Center, and The Center for International Maritime Security.]

Three Queens Named Mary – Part 2

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HMS Repulse (British Battlecruiser, 1916-1941) leading other Royal Navy capital ships during maneuvers, circa the later 1920s. The next ship astern is HMS Renown. The extensive external side armor of Repulse and the larger “bulge” of Renown allow these ships to be readily differentiated. Launched in 1916, Repulse was one of the three battlecruisers the Royal Navy still had in service during World War Two – HMS Hood and HMS Renown were the others. Only HMS Renown survived the war.

At Jutland, the Royal Navy’s concept of a ‘battlecruiser’ — a warship the size of a ‘battleship’ but with far less armor in order to increase speed – proved a disaster. These ships were designed to act as the advance scouts of the main battle fleet and the Battle of Jutland began when Vice-Admiral Beatty and his Battlecruiser Squadron did find the German fleet. Unfortunately, with their typically far more accurate shooting, the Germans very quickly hit two of the battlecruisers HMS Queen Mary and HMS Invincible at a weak point and both exploded.

The Duke and Duchess of York on their wedding day with the Duke’s parents King George V and Queen Mary, she being the namesake of the HMS Queen Mary.

[Images courtesy of the US Naval History and Heritage Command and The Telegraph.]