Frederic Wake-Walker

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Sir Frederic Wake-Walker
The Third Sea Lord. January 1944, Admiralty. Vice Admiral Sir W Frederic Wake-walker, Kcb, Cbe, Third Sea Lord and Controller. A23581.jpg
Wake-Walker when Third Sea Lord - January 1944
Birth nameWilliam Frederic Wake-Walker
Born(1888-03-24)24 March 1888
Died24 September 1945(1945-09-24) (aged 57)
London, England
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service1903–1945
Battles/warsOperation Dynamo
Battle of the Denmark Strait
Last battle of the battleship Bismarck

Admiral Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker KCB CBE (24 March 1888 – 24 September 1945) was a British admiral who served in the Royal Navy during World War I and World War II, taking a leading part in the destruction of the German battleship Bismarck, and in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Early days[edit]

Born William Frederic Wake-Walker, he was the son of Frederic George Arthur Wake-Walker and Mary Eleanor Forster,[1] and the grandson of Baldwin Wake Walker, Surveyor of the Navy from 1848 to 1861. He married Muriel Elsie Hughes, daughter of Sir Alfred Collingwood Hughes, 10th Bt. His son Captain Christopher Wake-Walker (1920-1998) married Lady Anne Spencer, daughter of the 7th Earl.

After attending Haileybury school, Wake-Walker entered the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth as a cadet in 1903,[2] and went to sea the following year as midshipman aboard HMS Good Hope, the flagship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron.[3]

World War I[edit]

By the start of World War I Wake-Walker had risen to the rank of lieutenant, and served as torpedo lieutenant on HMS Cochrane from 1913 to 1915. He was promoted to lieutenant-commander in July 1916 and after training at HMS Vernon, was appointed to the new battleship HMS Ramillies, serving in her until the end of the war.[3]

Inter-War Years[edit]

Commands and promotions[edit]

Wake-Walker was promoted to commander in June 1920, serving aboard HMS Coventry from 1919 to 1921. Between 1921 and 1925 he served at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, on the naval staff, and then at the Tactical School, Portsmouth. He returned to sea as executive officer of HMS Royal Oak from 1925 to 1927.[3]

He was promoted to captain in 1927, and commanded HMS Castor from 1928 to 1930 on the Mediterranean and China Stations. From September 1932 to July 1935 he served as captain of HMS Dragon on the America and West Indies station, and from January 1938 – 1939 as captain of HMS Revenge in the Home Fleet.[3] From 1930 to 1943 he was Deputy Director of the Training and Staff Duties Division of the Admiralty naval staff. From 1935 to 1938 he was also Director of Torpedoes and Mining at the Admiralty.[3]

Wake-Walker achieved flag rank on 10 January 1939.

Liability for the collision between HMS Dragon and Maplebranch[edit]

On 13 August 1934, Dragon under Wake-Walker's command was entering the Market (or Victoria) Basin in the harbour of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, when the ship collided with an oil bunkering steamer, Maplebranch, which was securely moored at the time of the collision. Maplebranch sank. The steamer's owners sued Wake-Walker for the damages to Maplebranch and its cargo, alleged to have been caused solely by the improper and negligent navigation and mismanagement of Dragon by Wake-Walker. In his defence, Wake-Walker pleaded inevitable accident, caused by the maneuvering of a third vessel, Saguenay Trader, which Wake-Walker was trying to avoid hitting.

The Admiralty action was heard by the Exchequer Court of Canada (Quebec Admiralty District), which held that Wake-Walker was liable. Wake-Walker appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the finding of liability on a 3-2 majority. Speaking for the majority, Justice Davis held that when a vessel under steam collides with a moored vessel, the commander of the vessel under steam is presumed liable for the collision, and has the onus of proving that he was not negligent. Wake-Walker had not done so. In addition, the trial judge had found actual fault by Wake-Walker in his navigation of Dragon and there was no basis to set aside that finding on appeal.[4] Wake-Walker then appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council, at that time the highest court of appeal for the British Empire. That court dismissed the appeal. Speaking for the Judicial Committee, Viscount Sankey agreed with the courts below that Wake-Walker had not discharged the onus to prove that the accident had been inevitable.[5]

World War II[edit]

Wake-Walker's first appointment, in September 1939, was rear-admiral commanding the 12th Cruiser Squadron. This appointment lasted only a short time as he soon returned to the Admiralty as head of a special group created to develop magnetic mine countermeasures.[3]

In May 1940 Wake-Walker was appointed rear-admiral in command of all ships and vessels off the Franco-Belgian coast for the evacuation of Dunkirk. Wake-Walker reached Dunkirk in the minesweeper HMS Hebe on 30 May. On 1 June his flagship, the destroyer HMS Keith, was sunk by Ju 87 Stukas, and he thereafter directed operations from the motor torpedo boat MTB 102 in the harbour. For his role in the evacuation he was appointed Companion of the Bath.[3]

From June to December 1940 he commanded the 1st Mine Laying Squadron, responsible for setting up the east coast mine barrier, and after a brief time as commander of Force K, flying his flag in the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, he was made commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron.[3]

Sinking Bismarck[edit]

In late May 1941, two of Wake-Walker's heavy cruisers – HMS Suffolk and his flagship HMS Norfolk - were positioned north west of Iceland to intercept and shadow the German battleship Bismarck if she attempted to break out into the Atlantic.[3] Bismarck sortied from Bergen towards the Denmark Strait on 21 May in company with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

On 23 May 1941 at 7.22 pm Suffolk sighted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. After a brief exchange of fire, the heavily out-gunned British ships took cover in nearby fog and tracked the enemy by radar. They maintained contact with the two German ships through the night despite appalling weather, and successfully guided Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland's two capital ships HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales into position to intercept Bismarck. The two forces came together in the Battle of the Denmark Strait the next day.[3]

In the subsequent battle, Vice-Admiral Holland was killed when Hood was destroyed, and many of Prince of Wales's senior officers were killed or wounded, which left Wake-Walker in command of the surviving ships, Norfolk, Suffolk and the damaged Prince of Wales. He decided not to risk continuing the battle and decided to continue to shadow the German ships, believing that Admiral John Tovey, with powerful elements of the Home Fleet, was approaching.[3]

Wake-Walker stayed in the trail of Bismarck, but radar contact was lost early on 25 May. Wake-Walker sent Suffolk to search to the southwest, and thus she played no further role in the battle. However Norfolk turned east, and was present during the final part of the battle, the following day.[3]

Later, moves were made to court-martial Wake-Walker and Captain John Leach of Prince of Wales. The view was taken that they were wrong not to have continued the battle with Bismarck after Hood had sunk. John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, was appalled at this criticism. A row ensued between Tovey and his superior, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. Tovey stated that the two officers had acted correctly, not endangering their ships needlessly and ensuring that the German ships were tracked. Tovey threatened to resign his position and appear at any court-martial as 'defendant's friend' and defence witness. No more was heard of the proposal.[6][7][8][Note 1] For his part in the destruction of Bismarck, Wake-Walker was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[3]

In April 1942 he was promoted to vice-admiral and was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy. His main task was the creation of the huge fleet of landing craft needed to carry out the amphibious landings that began with "Operation Torch", and ended on D-Day.[3]

In 1943 Wake-Walker was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

On 8 May 1945 he was promoted to full admiral, and in September was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, but on 24 September 1945 he died unexpectedly at his home in London, aged 57.[3] He was buried at East Bergholt Cemetery, Suffolk.[9]

The grave of Frederic Wake-Walker in East Bergholt Cemetery, Suffolk.


  1. ^ Kennedy expounds on the court martial claim via the epilogue in Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck. According to Kennedy the claim for a proposal to court martial Wake-Walker came from post war letters written by Admiral Tovey to Stephen Roskill, after he retired, and not from Admiralty sources. Kennedy states in his epilogue that "...later in life Tovey's memory let him down..." and that plus the fact that Wake-Walker was retained in his command and given a commendation must cast considerable doubt on the court martial proposal.



  1. ^ "Admiral Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker". Retrieved 22 March 2010.[unreliable source]
  2. ^ "Royal Navy (RN) Officers 1939-1945 - W". Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Sir William Frederic Wake-Walker (1888-1945)". Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  4. ^ Wake-Walker v. Steamer Colin W. Ltd., [1936] S.C.R. 624, at p. 636.
  5. ^ Wake-Walker v. SS. Colin W. Ltd., [1937] UKPC 49, [1937] 2 D.L.R. 753 (P.C.), at p. 761.
  6. ^ Hogben, Lawrence (19 April 2001). "Sinking the 'Bismarck'". London Review of Books. London: LRB Ltd. 23 (8): 36–37. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  7. ^ Kennedy, Ludovic (1974). Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck. Book Club Associates. p. 212.
  8. ^ Roskill, Stephen (1978). Churchill and the Admirals. William Morrow & Company. p. 125 & 313.
  9. ^ "Wake-Walker, Sir William Frederic". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2 July 2018.


Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Bruce Fraser
Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Daniel