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Biography: John Tovey

JOHN TOVEY

Born 7th March 1885 at Borley Hill, Rochester, Kent and entered the navy as a Cadet in January 1900. His first sea appointment was as Midshipman in the battleship HMS Majestic, flagship of the Channel Squadron. This was followed by three years in the cruiser HMS Ariadne, flagship of the North America and West Indies station, under Vice Admiral Douglas. In 1905, he attended courses in gunnery, torpedo, navigation and pilotage. Tovey received his first command on 13th January 1915, when he was appointed to the destroyer HMS Jackal. He was then given command of the destroyer HMS Onslow on 7th May 1916, in which he made his name at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916, for his great courage. ‘For the persistent and determined manner in which he attacked enemy ships’ during the battle he was promoted Commander and Mentioned in Dispatches, and eventually receiving the Distinguished Service Order in 1919.

In October 1917, he was given command of the destroyer HMS Ursa and subsequently HMS Wolfhound. He joined the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich in May 1919 where he remained until June 1920, when he was appointed to the Admiralty operations division. In December 1923, Tovey was promoted Captain which was followed a number of shore appointments interspersed with further destroyer work as Captain of Destroyers. In 1925, his flotilla was based at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth, where Cunningham was in charge. Here, they developed a scheme that increased exercises at sea and rectified lapses in training.

In 1927, he spent a year at the Imperial Defence College, followed by two years as Naval Assistant to the Second Sea Lord at the Admiralty. In April 1932, he was given command of the battleship HMS Rodney, following which, he was appointed Commodore of the RN Barracks at Chatham, in 1935, and seven months later was promoted Rear-Admiral. He was awarded the Companion of the Bath in 1937.

In March 1938, Tovey was appointed Rear Admiral (Destroyers) in the Mediterranean, with HMS Galatea as his flagship, and in May 1939, promoted to Vice-Admiral. In June 1940, Tovey was given command of all the Allied light forces in the Mediterranean and made second-in-command of the fleet, leading the former in the action against the Italians off Calabria on 9th July 1940, and ten days later sinking the Italian submarine Bartolomeo Colleoni.

At the end of 1940, Tovey was given the acting rank of Admiral and transferred to the Home Fleet as Commander-in-Chief. In April 1941, Tovey was aware of Admiral Raeder’s plan whereby the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen should escape unseen from the Baltic, and join forces in the Atlantic with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and thereby pose a powerful threat to Britain’s Atlantic lifeline. Tovey dispersed his fleet accordingly, ordering his cruisers to keep a close watch on the Denmark Strait. On the 22nd May 1941, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had been reported as having left Bergen, indicating an escape was imminent. At 7.45pm, on his flagship HMS King George V, he led the rest of the Home Fleet towards the Denmark Strait. At 7.22pm on 23rd May, the cruiser HMS Suffolk sighted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen seven miles ahead of it in the Denmark Strait. Early in the morning of 24th May, the fleet attacked the German ships. HMS Hood was blown up and sunk by the Bismarck and HMS Prince of Wales had to withdraw under cover of smoke, after being damaged, but was able to continue to shadow the German ship. The Bismarck had also been hit and had sustained a fuel leak. Tovey with HMSs King George V, Repulse and Victorious, were still 300 miles away, intent on intercepting the Bismarck. The Admiralty diverted various ships to come under Tovey’s command, these included HMSs Ark Royal, Rodney and Ramillies. Late on 24th May, torpedo reconnaissance bombers from HMS Victorious found the Bismarck, and attacked it scoring at hit, but the Bismarck managed to escape yet again. Due to shortage of fueling his ships, Tovey decided that if the Bismarck had not been slowed down by midnight on 26th May, he would be compelled to break off the chase. At 8.47pm on 26th May, aircraft from HMS Ark Royal scored a hit that damaged Bismarck’s propellers, jammed the rudder, and effectively stopped the ship. At 0800 the next morning, the Bismarck faced the combined fire of HMSs King George V and Rodney and sustained heavy damage within an hour, although she was able to continue to return fire. Tovey ordered that the ship be sunk with torpedoes, which were fired from HMS Dorsetshire. 110 survivors of the Bismarck’s crew were later picked up. Tovey was appointed Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) after sinking the Bismarck, and in the same year was awarded Knight Commander of the Bath.

In 1943, he relinquished the Home Fleet command and became Commander-in-Chief at the Nore, where preparations were underway for the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily and for the 1944 entry into Europe. He was also advanced to Knight Grand Cross Bath (GCB), and promoted Admiral of the Fleet, having been confirmed full Admiral in 1942. He was raised to the peerage in 1946.

Tovey died at Funchal, Madeira on the 12th January 1971.

Reading lists on HMS Hood and the Bismarck are available for further information. For more information on the Navy's People in the twentieth century, visit our Sea Your History website

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheets is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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