William Boyle, 12th Earl of Cork and Orrery

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The Earl of Cork
William Boyle.jpg
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork
Born 30 November 1873
Farnham, Surrey
Died 19 April 1967
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Years of service 1886–1940
Rank Admiral of the Fleet
Commands held Royal Naval College, Greenwich
British Home Fleet
Battles/wars Boxer Rebellion
World War I
World War II
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order

Admiral of the Fleet William Henry Dudley Boyle, 12th Earl of Cork, 12th Earl of Orrery GCB GCVO RN (30 November 1873 – 19 April 1967) was a career Royal Navy officer who had achieved the rank of full Admiral before succeeding a cousin in 1934 to the family titles, chief of which is Earl of Cork. He was, at the time, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet (1933–1935). His life is of interest as he was a member of a somewhat impoverished branch of the British aristocracy and had an active career spanning some 54 years in the Royal Navy throughout the last years of the era when his country was the supreme naval power.

Early career[edit]

Boyle was the second of four sons in a family of nine, born to Colonel Gerald Edmund Boyle, a grandson of the 8th Earl of Cork, and to Lady Elizabeth Theresa Pepys, daughter of the 1st Earl of Cottenham.

"Ginger" Boyle joined the navy at the age of 12, in 1886, training for two years on HMS Britannia, a shore establishment. His first seagoing appointment was in 1888 to HMS Monarch, a turret battleship. After serving in the Mediterranean, and back in England, he went out to China for service during the First Sino-Japanese War and then on to Australia and patrols around the South Seas in HMS Lizard. He was promoted lieutenant in 1895. He was in the China Squadron during the time of the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1902, he married Lady Florence Keppel, beginning a long and happy union. Later that year he took up his first command, a torpedo boat destroyer, HMS Spitfire, soon to be transferred to the destroyer, HMS Hazard. His next appointment was as executive officer of the cruiser HMS Astraea which was transferred to the Mediterranean and then to the China Station.

Promoted commander on 31 December 1906, he was soon assigned to the new battleship, HMS Hibernia, attached to the Channel Fleet. After a year ashore in the Admiralty, Boyle was back to sea as commander on the armoured cruiser HMS Good Hope, based with the Atlantic Fleet at Gibraltar, commanded by Sir John Jellicoe. Then back to the Home Fleet in command of the scout, HMS Skirmisher. Boyle was promoted captain on 30 June 1913.

He was appointed British naval attache in Rome in June 1913 and was still there at the outbreak of World War I in July 1914. At this post, he was involved as an observer during the Second Balkan War.

World War One[edit]

The Red Sea[edit]

Chafing as an attache while the war waged, Boyle finally was released on 11 November 1915 to the command of an old and slow second class cruiser in the Red Sea, HMS Fox. But this proved to be an interesting backwater, as he was soon involved in supporting the Arab Revolt. In 1916, he was senior Naval Officer, Red Sea Patrol.

Boyle was a participant in the conference held aboard HMS Dufferin that set the time of the start of the Arab Revolt. He led the bombardment of the Turkish held port of Jeddah in June 1916, which, after a failed Arab attack, was continued for six days, leading to its surrender. This enabled artillery and other supplies to be sent to the Arabs. In July, it was the turn of the Turks at the port of Kunfuda, which surrendered after a brief bombardment. This meant the effective loss of control of southern Arabia by the Turks.

Most of the rest of his time in the Red Sea consisted of blockade of the coasts still held by the Turks, varied by attacks to capture remaining enemy held ports. The port of Salif was taken in July 1917.

During this time, he worked closely with T. E. Lawrence, (Lawrence of Arabia), although he did not like him at first. He also worked with Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot of Sykes-Picot Agreement fame.

The North Sea[edit]

In November 1917, Boyle returned home to command the battlecruiser, HMS Repulse. Later that month, he led her in a brief action against German battleships and cruisers in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight. During the battle Repulse briefly engaged two German battleships, SMS Kaiser and SMS Kaiserin.

Between the wars[edit]

Battle fleet[edit]

After the war ended, he had a staff position ashore and then went on to command the battlecruiser HMS Tiger. Then, after a short spell on half pay, he joined the Atlantic fleet in 1923 as a rear admiral, flying his flag aboard the battleship HMS Resolution. Another period on half pay was followed by command from 9 September 1926, of the First Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet, under Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. He flew his flag aboard HMS Frobisher.

Temporary duty in China during the troubles[edit]

But, trouble in China meant his squadron was soon sent there where the Nationalists were fomenting anti-British riots. It seemed at one point that war with Nationalist China might break out, and Boyle thought he might have to attack Nationalist positions in Canton. Part of his time was taken up with suppressing piracy. His squadron was among the last to use the British leased port of Weihaiwei on the Yellow Sea.

Senior command in the peace time navy[edit]

In December 1928, he took up command of the Reserve Fleet, followed in 1929 by a stint as President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. He was made KCB in 1931 and became an admiral in 1932. In March 1933, he took up command of the Home Fleet, flying his flag aboard the battleship HMS Nelson. He took down his flag on 31 August 1936, at the age of 63.

Meanwhile, in 1934, he succeeded his cousin as Earl of Cork and Orrery and Baron Boyle of Marston. Through the latter title he became a member of the House of Lords and inherited a small estate in the English county of Somerset with its country home, Marston House.

In July 1937, he became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, a shore position.

Cork was strongly supported by Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt and Sir Roger Keyes for the position of First Sea Lord, in 1937, to succeed Sir Ernle Chatfield, 1st Baron Chatfield, but the appointment went elsewhere. Keyes described him as "...full of character, determination and sound common sense."

In 1938, Cork was advanced to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, the highest naval rank whose members are always on the active list. He gave up command on 30 June 1939, and retired, aged 66.

Character and appearance[edit]

Boyle was a short man with red hair and a short temper, distinguished by an ever present monocle. Formidable and a strict disciplinarian, he was well liked by the officers and men who served under him. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him in the summer of 1939 as "...exceedingly fit and full of energy and drive."

Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt who was his Commander-in-Chief in China in the 1920s described Boyle as "...simply splendid. I think he is absolutely first class." Among his other admirers were Roger Keyes and Winston Churchill.

World War two[edit]

Baltic offensive plans: Project Catherine[edit]

Main article: Project Catherine

When World War II started, Lord Cork offered his services but was told there was nothing for him. However, on 21 September 1939, Winston Churchill recalled him to the Admiralty with quarters and a nucleus staff to undertake a study of a Baltic Sea offensive to take place by March 1940. The proposed offensive was called Project Catherine.

This was a project dear to Churchill's heart, reminiscent of World War I plans to send a British fleet into the Baltic and land forces in conjunction with the Russians on the Pomeranian coast of Germany. This time, however, Russia was not an ally, and the goals were more modest.

The Admiralty plans division gave an immediate response to a 6 September query from Churchill on a possible Baltic offensive stating that the operation justified detailed planning, but that Italy and Japan must be neutral for this to proceed and that the danger from air attack appeared prohibitive.

Churchill hoped that a British fleet in the Baltic could dominate the Sea, cutting off the flow of iron ore from Sweden and generally isolating Germany from Scandinavian trade. It would have the bonus of securing the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian trade for Britain and intercepting German seaborne trade with the Soviet Union.

In the first volume of his history of World War II, The Gathering Storm, Churchill described Lord Cork as "...an officer of the highest attainments and distinction...".

Lord Cork got to work immediately and presented his preliminary appreciation on 26 September. Both he and Churchill agreed that especially modified battleships were necessary, with extra protection against air and submarine attack. Since the timelines were too short for new construction, it was proposed to modify two or three of Britain's oldest capital ships, the Revenge-class battleships. Super bulges along the water line would protect against torpedo attack, while extra armour plating on the decks would provide protection against aerial bombs. The earliest time British dockyards could complete this work was the late spring of 1940.

Cork's preliminary study described the operation as hazardous, but perfectly feasible. It was assumed that he would be the fleet commander. He asked for a margin of at least 30% over the German fleet on account of expected losses in the passage through the narrow seas off Denmark. Three months supply of fuel was to be taken along as well as three 8" cruisers and two 6" cruisers, two flotillas of the newest destroyers, a detachment of submarines and repair ships and depot ships.

It was hoped that the presence of a powerful British fleet dominating the Baltic for three months would prompt Sweden to offer the British a naval base, or failing that, the fleet would withdraw before the fuel ran out.

However, Lord Cork's study also stated the absolute need to assemble his fleet and finish training by mid February 1940. Since the modifications to the Revenge-class battleships could not be completed by then, the project was cancelled as impractical. A growing appreciation of the danger to naval ships from aircraft dampened enthusiasm for a revival of the project, until events in Finland, Denmark and Norway in February to May 1940 rendered the plan obsolete.

The Finnish expedition[edit]

Main article: Plan R 4

Later, Lord Cork was made force commander designate of a planned Anglo-French expedition to assist the Finns in the Winter War they were waging against a Soviet attack launched on 30 November 1939. But Sweden refused permission for the force to transit its territory and the expedition was called off.


At short notice, on 10 April 1940, Lord Cork (as he now was) was summoned to the Admiralty and given command of a hastily assembled naval force with a mission to retake from the Germans the strategic port of Narvik in Norway. He did his best in difficult circumstances. Because of his senior rank, he was de facto commander of the whole expedition, military as well as naval and he was formally appointed supreme commander of allied forces on 21 April.[1] In time, the Allied forces available for the landing at Narvik consisted of British, French, Polish and Norwegian soldiers and sailors. Cork received verbal instructions from Winston Churchill while driving with him to Parliament (where Cork sat in the House of Lords) to "...act with all promptitude..." to "...turn the enemy out of Narvik...". He flew his flag from the cruiser, HMS Aurora.

Lord Cork was in favour of an immediate storming of Narvik using both military and naval forces, but the more cautious army commander, General P. J. Mackesy, insisted on an indirect approach. Narvik was eventually taken by the Allies, but events in France caused the government to order its evacuation in June 1940.

Lord Cork was 66 and his front line service was over on his return. A position as flag officer commanding in Shetland began in July 1940. He was busy trying to put together some sort of defence against a not so unlikely German invasion. He was there until November, when the danger of invasion had subsided. A brief mission to Gibraltar followed and then service in the Home Guard. He retired on his 68th birthday.

Last years[edit]

In 1941, Lord Cork led the inquiry into the action of Admiral James Somerville at the indecisive Battle of Spartivento. The Admiral was vindicated.

Lord Cork served as a trustee of the National Maritime Museum from 1939 to 1947 and was President of the Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa Training Ship from 1943 to 1953. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that "...right up to the end of his very long life he had a commanding presence, walking upright with his shoulders back."

He and his wife of sixty years, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Albemarle, had no children, and his titles passed to a nephew, Patrick Reginald Boyle. He was vigorous to the end.

He died in his home in London on 19 April 1967, at the age of 93, surviving his wife by four years, and is buried at Frome in Somerset, England.

Never a wealthy man, probate of his will was granted on 23 August 1967, at 7,381 pounds sterling (£100,000 in 2009 value (calculated using measuringworth.com ref))


  1. ^ Derry, p. 200.


  • "My Naval Life", Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork & Orrery, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1942
  • "History of the Second World War, Vol. 1", B. H. Liddell Hart, Capricorn Books. New York, 1972
  • "The Biographical Dictionary of World War II", Mark M. Boatner III, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, USA, 1996 (highly recommended)
  • "The Second World War, Volume One, The Gathering Storm", Winston S. Churchill, Bantam Books, New York, 1961.
  • "The Keyes Papers, Volume II, 1919–1938", Paul Halpern, ed., George Allen & Unwin for the Navy Records Society, London, 1980.
  • "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" online edition, attributed quotations only.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Hugh Watson
Commander-in-Chief, Reserve Fleet
Succeeded by
Percival Hall-Thompson
Preceded by
John McClintock
President, Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Succeeded by
Sir Barry Domvile
Preceded by
Sir John Kelly
Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet
Succeeded by
Sir Roger Backhouse
Preceded by
Sir William Fisher
Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth
Succeeded by
Sir William James
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir John Kelly
First and Principal Naval Aide-de-Camp
Succeeded by
Sir Roger Backhouse
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
Robert Boyle
Earl of Cork and Orrery
Succeeded by
Patrick Boyle