-H.M.S. Hood Crew Information-
Biography of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake
By Paul Bevand, MBE
Updated 06-May-2014

Sir Geoffrey Blake, K.C.B., D.S.O. commanded the Battle Cruiser Squadron from aboard H.M.S Hood during 1936 & 1937.

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Photo of VADM Sir Geoffrey Blake

Geoffrey Blake was born in 1882 at Bramley House, Alverstone, the son of Thomas Naish Blake. Following his education at Winchester he joined the Royal Navy in 1897. Promotion to Lieutenant followed in 1904 and 1911 saw his marriage to Jean St. John.

In 1914 came further promotion, this time to the rank of Commander and a posting to H.M.S. Iron Duke, Flagship of Jellicoes Grand Fleet. Here he was to serve as Gunnery Officer until 1917. During this period he saw action at the Battle of Jutland, was mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the D.S.O. as well as the Russian Order of St. Anne.

In 1917, following Beatty's appointment to succeed Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Blake moved from Iron Duke to Beattys flagship, the new battleship H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. Joining the ship in the capacity of Executive Officer, he would serve under Beattys Flag Captain, Ernle Chatfield. This early association with Chatfield would help Blake advance his naval career in the same way it did for two fellow officers with whom he was to serve during this period - Thomas Binney and Sidney Bailey. The three became known in naval circles as "the B men" and, by coincidence, all three were later to see service in Hood - Blake and Bailey as Admirals and Binney as Captain. Chatfield was particularly impressed with Blakes qualities of diplomacy and leadership in what was considered to be a particularly testing role for a young Commander. Blake was responsible for the day to day efficiency of the ship and her crew but had the additional tasks of liaising with the Commander-in-Chief and his staff most of whom were senior in rank and service to himself. A short passage in the first volume of Chatfields memoirs "The Navy and Defence" makes clear the high regard in which Blake was held at this crucial period of his career. Chatfield comments on Blakes skill and tact and ends his tribute by saying, "Never was a better team collected together".

1918 saw Blake promoted to the rank of Captain, and the following year came an overseas posting as Royal Navy attaché to the United States, based in Washington, D.C.. While there, he briefly resumed his association with his old chief Admiral Jellicoe who passed through Washington in January 1920 during his world tour.

In 1921 Blake returned to the UK and took up post aboard his old ship H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, but this time he himself was her Captain.

The mid 20s saw a series of shore based appointments. Firstly from 1923 to 1925 on the staff of the War College thereafter as Deputy Director of the Royal Naval Staff College. The College Director at that time was another who was to fly his flag from Hood - William James. When James left to take up another appointment in 1926 Blake took over as Director and held that post until the following year.

On leaving the Royal Naval Staff College Blake returned to the Atlantic Fleet in the role of Chief of Staff where he served for two years. 1929 saw another overseas appointment. On this occasion he was to go to New Zealand in the role of Commodore in Charge and first Naval Member of the New Zealand Board. Blake remained in New Zealand until 1932 during which time he was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in 1931.

On returning to the UK in 1932 he took up post as 4th Sea Lord and Chief of Supplies and Transport.

1935 saw further promotion to the rank of Vice Admiral and a year later came the posting which would turn out to be the culmination of his sea going career - Vice Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron and Second in Command of the Mediterranean Fleet. It was this post that was to see Blake's association with H.M.S. Hood. The Hood recommissioned in September 1936 with a new crew but retained her Captain from her previous commission - Arthur Pridham. Blake was to join his new flagship in Malta and Pridham was determined that the ship would make a good impression. Unfortunately, there was a false start to her journey to join her new Admiral in the Mediterranean. Hood sucked up some gravel on her way out into the English Channel and failed to get past the Isle of Wight. She was obliged to return immediately to Portsmouth for repairs. Blake finally managed to board his flagship on 28th November, 1936.

Blake's association with Hood was dominated by the events of the Spanish Civil war and on numerous occasions he would berth his flagship at the major ports of the Mediterranean alongside German and Italian vessels.

April 1937 saw the sternest test of Blake's mettle as events in the civil war escalated in Northern Spain. Following an incident in which the British merchantman Thorphall was challenged by Nationalist warships, Hood was ordered to the area in the hope that her very presence would prevent further incidents. However, before Blake arrived on the scene General Franco increased the tension further by warning that his ships would enforce a complete blockade on the loyalist enclave served by the port of Bilbao.

Blake's position as the man on the spot was not made easier by statements from the Admiralty. Their public line was that British merchant ships should avoid the area "as it may be impossible to protect them". To Blake they initially signalled that if merchantmen attempted to run the blockade they should not be protected by his warships. Later came a signal that he should "render protection on the high seas". Blake himself was unconvinced that the nationalist warships intended to enforce a blockade anyway.

Events developed, however, when a British merchant ship successfully got through to Bilbao on 17th April. The skippers of 3 more ships notified Blake that they too intended to attempt the run, on 23rd April. Blake decided that he must take the initiative and signalled to the Admiralty "H.M.S. Hood will be there" indicating that, although he would not directly escort the British vessels he would afford them some protection. Hood was to be close enough by to intervene should any form of trouble with Nationalist warships arise - as indeed it did. The ship at the head of the British blockade running convoy, MacGreggor, was soon challenged by the insurgent ship Galerna. MacGreggor's skipper "Corn Cob" Jones issued a call for assistance, which was answered by the British destroyer Firedrake. The situation quickly escalated as the 8,000 tons cruiser Almirante Cevera, in nationalist hands since their capture of the Spanish naval base at El Ferrol, approached to warn off the British merchant ships.

A confusing exchanged of signals followed between the British and Spanish warships during which the Nationalists claimed that territorial waters extended to six miles rather than the three mile limit acknowledged by the British. The situation was again escalated when Galerna fired across the bows of MacGreggor. Blake decided that it was time for his flagship to intervene and signalled MacGreggor to continue with its journey. The Spanish responded by ranging Almirante Cerveras guns on the British ships. Blake decided that Hood's own guns should be aimed off the Spanish cruiser as a warning that they should not consider opening fire. However, Blake's instruction was misunderstood and Hood's guns took aim directly at the insurgent ship. This proved to be the final move though, as the Spanish ships took no further action. Indeed such blockade as existed was to be short lived as on 19th June Bilbao fell to Franco's Nationalists

A month after these tense events Blake found himself in much more pleasant circumstances as he took Hood home to attend the Coronation Naval Review for King George VI. The personal highlight for Blake came when the Sovereign knighted him on his old ship Queen Elizabeth.

June 1937 saw the now Sir Geoffrey returning to the Mediterranean to take up his newly renamed post of Senior Officer Western Basin of the Mediterranean. This would see Hood patrolling waters in the area of Marseilles, Palma and Barcelona. However, the mood was soon to change. Blake, who had always been a dedicated sportsman and fitness enthusiast pushed himself too hard in the conditions at Malta one day when out for an early morning row and swim and had to be recovered onto the ship by a party in a motor launch. Within days he had suffered two heart attacks and was not fit enough even to travel back to England until August.

Initially it was hoped that Blake would regain his fitness and be able to resume his command at some point, but it was not to be. By the end of 1938 he had been medically retired from the service many, including Andrew Cunningham his replacement in Hood, thought he would one day head.

Although he would never again see service at sea the outbreak of World War 2 found Blake again called by the Admiralty. On 8th April, 1940 he took up post as Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff. Blake held this post until 1942 when he became Flag Officer, Liaison with the U.S. Navy in Europe, in which capacity he served until the end of the war and saw him awarded the Legion of Merit.

Whilst in post as ACNS Blake's association with Hood was renewed in the most tragic of circumstances. Britains most famous warship of the 1920s and 1930s had been lost in battle against the German Battleship Bismarck and it fell to Blake to Chair the Board of Inquiry to investigate her loss.

On 28th May, just four days after Hood had been lost, and the day following Bismarck's sinking, First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound wrote to The Controller of the Navy, Rear Admiral Bruce Fraser asking him to arrange an Inquiry into why and how Hood had been lost. The spectre of the loss of the three Battle Cruisers at Jutland once more cast its shadow over the Admiralty.

After the Board had been held Blake's findings were circulated to various senior officers at the Admiralty and the alarm bells started to sound. The Director of Naval Construction commented on an anomaly between the conclusion that one of the after magazines had been penetrated by a 15 inch shell from Bismarck and the position of the blast as reported by witnesses. The DNC recommended that before Blake's findings were accepted, four issues should be addressed:

1. Evidence should be gathered from Bismarck's survivors if possible
2. The evidence given to the Board should be available for scrutiny (Blake had provided a "summary" of the evidence he had heard).
3. A shell that had hit Prince of Wales but failed to explode should be examined to determine the fuse delay. This would give a better idea whether such a shell could detonate Hood's magazines.
4. The opinions of explosives experts should be sought.

The possibility of torpedo warhead detonation was also suggested as an alternative to the detonation of a magazine as the cause of the loss of the ship.

Next to comment on Blakes findings was Controller Rear Admiral Bruce Fraser. Fraser did not accept the DNCs doubts and suggested accepting the Inquirys conclusions.

Finally, on 18th July, 1941 came a minute from the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Tom Phillips. He poured scorn on the Inquiry from several different standpoints:

1. Verbatim records of the evidence had not been kept and, in some cases, officers had "summarised" evidence from several witnesses in their ship. Phillips considered this to be "quite extraordinary". It was all against established conventions and did not allow experts from various specialist branches of the navy to judge whether the Boards findings were justifiable or not.
2. Only one of the three survivors had been interviewed. "This strikes me as quite remarkable" comments Phillips.
3. Phillips disagreed with Fraser, who considered further investigation of the queries raised by the DNC unwarranted. These four issues should be addressed asserted Phillips.
4. Again disagreeing with Fraser, Phillips felt unable to discount the possibility that Warhead detonation had caused the loss of the ship.

Phillips concludes by recommending that another Board be convened to examine the matter more thoroughly.

Following Phillips' comments Fraser wrote to the First Lord, AV Alexander, recommending another Board. The matter was settled on 19th July when Alexander endorsed Fraser's minute "I agree".

So Blake's final Association with Hood was to prove unsatisfactory as well as unpleasant. No doubt there was pressure to reach conclusions about the reason for the loss of the ship as quickly as possible - there were possible implications for capital ships throughout the fleet. But for that very reason it was also vital that the Board of the Admiralty and Commanders-in-Chief should have full confidence that the Board had reached its conclusions on a solid base of all available evidence and expert opinion.

Following the end of the war Blake again retired from the Navy.

For four years, from 1945 to 1949, Sir Geoffrey held the post of Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod - Sergeant at Arms of the House of Lords - an officer most famous for having the door of the House of Commons slammed shut in his face each year at during the ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament.

Sir Geoffrey Blake died on 18th July, 1968.

Sources and References:

Published Books
Bradford: The Mighty Hood
Chatfield: The Navy and Defence
Coles and Briggs: Flagship Hood
Cunningham: A Sailors Odyssey
Roskill: The War at Sea (Volume 1)
Winton: Cunningham: The Greatest Admiral Since Nelson

The National Archives (UK) :
ADM116/4351: Loss of H.M.S. Hood
ADM116/4352: Loss of H.M.S. Hood
ADM116/3514: Spanish Civil War
ADM199/628: FOLUS Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake War Diaries, 1942 to 1945
CAB 140/39: Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake 16/10/52 to 27/01/58
FO371/21353: Spanish Civil War
National Maritime Museum, Manuscripts Section Ref BLE NRA 30121
Correspondence and papers 1897 to 1967
Churchill Archives, Cambridge University: ROSK NRA 21760
Correspondence with SW Roskill 1949 to 1961

Other references:
Obituary in the Times: 24th July, 1968