on 24 March 2013
(Publisher's review copy)
They have taken the men that were careless lads at Dartmouth in 'Fourteen ..
... They were not rated too young to teach, nor reckoned unfit to guide
When they formed their class on Helles' beach at the bows of the "River Clyde" ...
... They have borne the bridle upon their lips and the yoke upon their neck,
Since they went down to the sea in ships to save the world from wreck-
Since the chests were slung down the College stair at Dartmouth in 'Fourteen ..
Excerpted from Rudyard Kipling, `The Scholars' (1919)
At the outbreak of the First World War the subject of this autobiography, Allan Hillgarth (1899-1976) - known as Hugh Evans until he began, in 1915, a long and never explained chrysalitic process of name change completed in 1928 - was at the age of 15 one of the naval cadets sent peremptorily off to sea from Dartmouth. He was appointed to HMS Bacchante, a cruiser of the `Live Bait Squadron' three other of whose members were sunk on the same day, together with a large number of his contemporaries, largely through ignorance of the potential of the submarine. It was the start of a life of adventure-seeking, he unfazed by such tasks as throwing amputated legs over the side - perhaps being from a medical family helped - and coming under fire at Gallipoli and, ashore, personally bayoneting a Turk. Either he was that way inclined anyway, or turned by the excitement of war; throughout his life he was drawn to adventure as a moth to a flame, and that is what makes his `Life' so fit for sharing.
The name change is just one enigma among many where the author, coming upon Hillgarth only after his decease, is at an unavoidable disadvantage. Just one minor puzzle is why, after streamlining his own identity and renouncing his third Christian name Jocelyn, Hillgarth then parked it on his son and heir together with five more Christian names.
In this opening part of the book the author does not quite have the feel for naval matters that is needed (and sometimes later - for instance, p.234, glaringly, calling HMS Indefatigable a `battleship'). Further, I doubt that during the war we had listening stations in the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits (p.267) and the `eighteen aircraft carriers' on p.281 need some explanation.
Hillgarth's career milestones are clear from the Navy List and the London Gazette. The cadets shipped off to sea in 1914 were all promoted Midshipman on 2nd August and the junior ones like Hillgarth thus jumped usefully up the ladder ahead of time. Thereafter in ordinary course he became a Sub Lieutenant 15.3.1918 and a Lieutenant 15.11.1919 following his two terms at Cambridge, one of Kipling's `Scholars', a substitute arrangement for the equivalent polishing process at Greenwich postponed by the war, and a sticking plaster for an education anyway limited in its scope and then peremptorily curtailed. Hillgarth was therefore eligible to become a Lieutenant Commander exactly eight years later, but this step on the Retired List was not due to Hillgarth being employed in some shadowy way by the Admiralty; I have traced another example so promoted but not so employed. On 1.9.1939 Hillgarth was embodied as were other officers on the Retired List, recalled to active service (but NOT as stated to the Active List) to backfill jobs held by regulars or shore jobs which in peace time were in abeyance. A fluent Spanish speaker with contacts at the top of the Nationalist tree, he was sent to Madrid as Naval Attaché, as an Acting Captain, and in 1946, with others like him, was given substantive promotion to Commander on the Retired List to date 3.9.1945 (although in Society he continued to refer to himself as Captain). His OBE was Civil, not Military, and awarded in a list that included other Consular officials who had served in Spain during her civil war, rather than for the assistance to the Royal Navy he gave so freely. An appendix to this book contains Hillgarth's lucid and logical reprise of the desiderata for a Naval Attaché, specifically for Spain although I believe it could still be usefully extrapolated for a Defence Attaché today.
The lacuna noted above is not a problem in respect of other aspects of Hillgarth's extraordinarily varied life. The bringing to notice of all sorts of private letters that Hillgarth's family have generously allowed to be published, the fruit of the author's extensive research, more than balances my cavil. The subject's personality certainly shines forth and his signing off to his mother `I remain, your loving son, G.H.J.Evans' suggests a distance from her which may account for his independence and strength of character - in stark contrast to `... goodbye dear Anne. Lots of love from Hugh' to his mother's contemporary and Hillgarth's confidante, Anne Hamilton, although his letters to his mother have a warmer tone once the cakes start to arrive.
At Gallipoli Hillgarth was often on detached duty with his pinnace, often under fire, he (and presumably his crew) living rough in caves on Anzac Beach. Eventually a Turkish bullet creased his scalp, mercifully without entering his skull. After time in hospital in Malta he was appointed to the destroyer HMS Wolverine (NB wrong illustration - it is of his later ship HMS Ceres!). That he ran his boat under such arduous circumstances and under fire makes an eventual rather negative report from HMS Ceres in May 1922, relating to his manner with juniors, frankly inexplicable. It is abundantly clear from this narrative that Hillgarth had a near-perfect touch with people at every level and was a natural leader; his friend Ian Fleming later attested to the devotion Hillgarth inspired in his staff. Indeed on signing up for a strange expedition to find buried treasure in Bolivia in 1928 he seems immediately to have become the leader's deputy and right hand man. By the by, the full story of this expedition would make a book in its own right.
Somehow disillusion with the post-war Navy set in Ceres and Hillgarth, never at ease under someone else's rigorous routine, let alone perhaps the Mediterranean priorities of bone-white teak and burnished brightwork and starched ice-cream suits under sun-bleached awnings, retired from the Navy in September1922. His employment from then up to the Bolivian expedition - in Ireland, Morocco and North and South America - is, like much about him, something of a mystery, but there are hints of secret errands for HMG or the Admiralty, and maybe bootlegging or arms smuggling. Whatever he was up to he never got caught. Oh to know more!
One unusual thread in Hillgarth's character was his writing and his adventures in Ceres rescuing refugees from the Reds in Russia provided him with material for one of his novels. In spite of the paucity of his education he had sent in his first novel aged 16 and wrote novels, short stories and articles all his life, but never with entire success such as was enjoyed by his great friend Graves or other friends and contemporaries such as Waugh and Yeats. How much this sustained him financially is not explained - presumably because it cannot be determined - and apart from marrying a wealthy second wife (the first came and went rather rapidly) Hillgarth's finances, although apparently ample, and their sources and status, remain mysterious.
This is a pity as he reckoned being an honorary vice-consul in Majorca for six and a half years left him £3,843 out of pocket and that was a huge sum in the Thirties. That he stuck it is to his credit and even more so what he achieved in saving lives during the Spanish Civil War. As a consul he was necessarily and actually neutral although what he had seen of the results of Bolshevik terror in Russia, and what he saw in the way of iconoclastic, sacrilegious vandalism by the Communists in Spain can hardly have endeared the Reds to him there either. When it came to casual butchery of the defenceless, both sides competed vigorously but Hillgarth managed necessarily to maintain the civilities with all and emerged with contacts at a senior levels in Franco's regime that were invaluable as NA during the war, and indeed, together with his mastery of the language and his understanding of the people made his suitability for the job blindingly obvious.
Much of what Hillgarth did in Spain is not discoverable but he was markedly successful in sailing (as was his wont) close-hauled through choppy political seas. His involvement in MINCEMEAT and other wartime activities make fascinating reading, as does what can be gleaned about his many other clandestine machinations. His calculation of risk was near-perfect both as consul and NA and demonstrate his acute intelligence. I think like many clever people he found it wearing to have to watch the wooden wheels clunking round in the heads of others less gifted, particularly when they were senior, and he was always most effective when given a free hand.
There was also involvement at a remove with the MENACE expedition to Dakar in 1940. Unfortunately (p.206) the author goes off-piste and gets a bit lost and the (brief) background account is out of balance. Also the injustice to Admiral North had other roots than described. Interested parties seeking a balanced and well-researched account of this complicated debacle should consult `The Guns of Dakar' by John Williams (Heinemann 1976).
Hillgarth had met Churchill by accident of fate (much of his success in life was due to happy accident) in 1935, and established a firm friendship, fuelled by personal reports to Churchill both before and during the war. Similarly he communicated privately to DNI, the brilliant but unrewarded Admiral John Godfrey, whom Hillgarth had met and become friends with in 1936, but as NA Hillgarth still managed to keep his Ambassador on side and an ally.
In late 1943, with Spain less of a potential threat than earlier in the war, Hillgarth was sent East as Chief of Naval Intelligence to the Fleet commander. Here he was dealing less with agents, which in Spain had led him to prodigies of Machiavellian manipulation, than with signal intelligence from the code breakers; but he was equally successful, although he wore himself out doing the job to the utmost which meant flying tens of thousands of miles across a vast area, often in poor conditions. A contribution to his ulcer may however have been conflict over his failed marriage and his love for his to-be third wife. This showed the impulsive side to his character which he usually managed to keep under control, indeed behind a mask, in his professional work.
The war over, Hillgarth and Jean (Mrs H III) settled in Ireland, but he was by no means buried in his Tipperary bog and continued to communicate and travel widely. In some ways through his letters and writing we know so much about him and then suddenly a veil is drawn and we are confronted by an intensely private man always, in his own words, 'happier in the shadow than the limelight' someone whose real thoughts perhaps we do not know at all.
Captain Alan Hillgarth CMG OBE RN did our country great service and we should be grateful that Hart-Davis has provided this memoir of him. I found it fascinating. It is excellently sourced in the Notes, and well indexed, and supported by well-chosen illustrations.
The more I read, the more this book grew on me and I learned a lot about Spain, her civil war, Italian and German involvement in it, and her tightrope walking in World War Two. I also warmed to the perhaps rather chilly character of the principal, and applaud what the author has done to being him posthumously to light.