Boyle, William Henry Dudley, twelfth Earl of Cork and Orrery 1873-1967, admiral of the fleet, was born, together with a twin sister, at Hale, Farnham, 30 November 1873, the second of the four sons in a family of nine of Colonel Gerald Edmund Boyle and his wife, Lady (Elizabeth) Theresa Pepys, daughter of the first Earl of Cottenham. He entered the Britannia as a naval cadet in 1887 and two years later went to sea as a midshipman in the Monarch of the Channel Squadron, later transferring to the Colossus in the Mediterranean. In later life he used to claim that it was his service in this ship which was responsible for his future career in the navy, since it brought him into contact in very early life with officers of outstanding ability and dedication, and in fact no fewer than six of the seven lieutenants serving in the Colossus later reached flag rank.
As a commander Boyle served in the Naval Intelligence Department in the Admiralty in 1909-11, and on promotion to captain in 1913 was appointed naval attaché in Rome, a post in which he was still serving when Italy joined the Allies during the war of 1914-18. In 1915 he returned to sea in command of the Fox, serving in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time he was senior officer of the Red Sea Patrol, and as such was called upon to support some of the irregular operations of T. E. Lawrence [qv.], with whom he worked in close and cordial cooperation. He returned home in 1917 to command the Repulse in the Grand Fleet, serving as flag captain to Rear-Admiral Richard Phillimore [qv.] and subsequently to Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Oliver [qv.]. In 1918 he transferred to the Lion, where he was flag captain and chief of staff to Vice-Admiral Sir William Pakenham [qv.], serving in the rank of commodore, 2nd class. At the end of the war he was appointed C.B.
Boyle was promoted rear-admiral in 1923 and served as second-in-command of the first battle squadron in the Atlantic Fleet, and later as rear-admiral commanding the first cruiser squadron in the Mediterranean. On promotion to vice-admiral in 1928 he commanded the Reserve Fleet, and followed that appointment as president of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and vice-admiral commanding the Royal Naval War College in charge of the senior officers' war course. Having been appointed KCB in 1931, in 1932 he reached the rank of admiral and in the following year became commander-in-chief, Home Fleet, flying his flag in the Nelson. During this appointment he succeeded his kinsman as Earl of Cork and Orrery (1934).
In normal circumstances Lord Cork's command of the Home Fleet would have been his last appointment and he would have been placed on the retired list on its completion, but the unexpected death of Admiral Sir William Fisher in 1937 left a vacancy in the Portsmouth Command and Lord Cork was appointed to the post. He remained as commander-in-chief Portsmouth for the normal period of two years during which a vacancy occurred in the list of admirals of the fleet and he was selected to fill it (January 1938).
He had left Portsmouth by the start of the war of 1939-45 and was unemployed, but being exceedingly fit physically and full of energy and drive, he offered his services to the Admiralty for an active employment. An early opportunity arose with the command of the force provisionally arranged by the War Cabinet to assist Finland, then under unprovoked attack by Russia, but it foundered on the rock of Norwegian and Swedish neutrality which effectively barred all means of access. But before that expedition was finally cancelled, the German attack on Norway was launched on 8 April 1940 and he was given the appointment of flag officer, Narvik, with the force originally destined for Finland being switched to the capture of Narvik and the destruction of the iron ore trade from that port to Germany. His joint military commander was Major-General P. J. Mackesy, who had preceded him to Norway, and the two men met for the first time at Harstad, a small port north of Narvik, which had been selected as the main base for the operation, to discover, as Lord Cork described in his official dispatch, that they had left London with diametrically opposed views. This was hardly surprising in view of Lord Cork's naval reputation as a fiery leader, and the expedition began on a sour note. It was not eased by the failure in England to load the transports tactically, so that the weapons most urgently needed on arrival were stowed at the bottoms of the holds and were therefore the last to be unloaded. The impasse between naval and military theories of attack on Narvik were partially solved five days later when the War Cabinet gave Lord Cork supreme command of the expedition, but by then the over-all effect of the campaign of Norway was becoming academic in relation to the European war as a whole. In the event, Narvik was eventually captured by Lord Cork's expedition and the iron ore loading installations in the port destroyed, but the force had to be withdrawn and Narvik abandoned to the Germans the following week. During this operation Lord Cork had the unusual distinction of flying his Union flag at sea as an admiral of the fleet, which officially made him senior to the commander-in-chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes [qv.], who was in over-all command of the naval side of the whole campaign, but this anomaly passed without incident.
The Narvik operation was the final episode of Lord Cork's active career, although in 1941 he was sent to Gibraltar to inquire into the circumstances of the indecisive naval action off Spartivento, in which the pursuit of a fleeing Italian fleet had been called off by Admiral Sir James Somerville [qv.], commanding Force H, in the belief that they were too fast to be caught and that no good purpose could be saved by chasing the enemy to within range of shore-based aircraft. The result of Lord Cork's inquiry completely vindicated Somerville's decision.
Lord Cork had no further naval employment. He was now sixty-nine years old, and in his now exalted rank there was no avenue of active service left open to him. He became president of the Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa Training Ship in 1942 and served in that position until 1953.
Lord Cork was small in stature with fiery red hair, and was familiarly known as Ginger throughout the navy. He always wore a monocle which perhaps enhanced his aristocratic appearance, and right up to the end of his very long life he had a commanding presence, walking very upright with his shoulders back. Although a strict disciplinarian, he was regarded with affection by officers and men who served with him. He married in 1902 Lady Florence Cecilia Keppel (died 1963), daughter of William, seventh Earl of Albemarle, but there were no children of the marriage. He died in London at the age of ninety-three, 19 April 1967, and was succeeded, as thirteenth Earl of Cork and Orrery, by his nephew, Patrick Reginald Boyle.
official dispatches of the war of 1939-45
the Earl of Cork and Orrery, My Naval Life, 1942
Contributor: Peter Kemp