Roger Roland Charles Backhouse
Life & Career
the fourth son (twin with his brother Miles) of (Sir) Jonathan Edmund Backhouse, first baronet, a descendant of well-known Quaker forebears, by his wife, Florence, youngest daughter of Sir John Salusbury Salusbury-Trelawny, ninth baronet, the head of a famous and ancient Cornish family, was born at The Rookery, Middleton Tyas, Yorkshire, 24 November 1878. He entered the training-ship Britannia at Dartmouth as a naval cadet in 1892, and passing out after two years was appointed to the Repulse battleship in the Channel squadron, being promoted midshipman in 1894. A year later he was transferred to H.M.S. Comus, a small third-class cruiser which was commissioned to join the Pacific squadron, an opportunity for seeing the New World in the days of ‘showing the flag’ all down the American coast from Alaska to Patagonia. In her he remained until she returned to England in 1898, being promoted sub-lieutenant in March of that year. Exactly one year later he was promoted lieutenant with a prize of £10 for gaining five first class certificates. After a year in the battleship Revenge in the Mediterranean he rapidly became recognized as a gunnery expert, winning the Egerton prize in 1902. He divided his last remaining nine years as lieutenant equally between the staff of the gunnery-school ship Excellent at Portsmouth and appointments as gunnery officer of battleships afloat, including the new Dreadnought with its great advance in gun power. On promotion to commander at the end of 1909 he left the Dreadnought to return to the Excellent as experimental officer for a year, and then began a long period of staff work at sea. From March 1911 until August 1914 Backhouse was flag-commander to three successive Home Fleet commanders-in-chief, Sir F. C. B. Bridgeman [q.v.] , Sir G. A. Callaghan [q.v.] , and Sir John (afterwards Earl) Jellicoe [q.v.] , in their flagships Neptune and Iron Duke.
On 1 September, 1914, Backhouse was promoted to the rank of Captain, and reappointed to Jellicoe's staff for special service. Jellicoe, when first sea lord, placed on record the assistance of the greatest value rendered by Backhouse as flag-commander and captain on the staff from August 1914 to October 1915, both as gunnery expert and in the compilation of battle orders, and directed that this notice was to be treated as a ‘mention in dispatches’.
In November 1915 Backhouse was for the first time in command of a ship, the Conquest, light cruiser, in the Harwich force under Commodore (Sir) Reginald Yorke Tyrwhitt. He had an exciting year and incidents were numerous. When German battle cruisers bombarded Lowestoft on 25 April 1916 the commodore, flying his broad pennant in the Conquest, intervened with three light cruisers and sixteen destroyers and drew off the enemy's fire. In turning to retire the Conquest was hit by four or five 12-inch shells; twenty-three of her crew were killed and sixteen wounded, and a serious fire broke out. Backhouse's conduct in leaving the bridge directly the shellfire had ceased and taking personal charge of the operation was given official approbation by the Board of Admiralty; ‘by his personal efforts he saved his ship from destruction’.
In November 1916 Jellicoe left the Grand Fleet to become first sea lord. Sir David (afterwards Earl) Beatty [q.v.] succeeded to the chief command and took his staff and many of the officers from the battle-cruiser Lion to the battleship Iron Duke which had been Grand Fleet flagship since March 1914. Sir W. C. Pakenham [q.v.] succeeded Beatty in command of the battle-cruisers, and Backhouse went to the Lion as his flag-captain and for gunnery duties in the battle-cruiser force. In the summer of 1918 ill health compelled him to come ashore, but he recovered before the armistice (11 November) and was able to take up special duties at the Admiralty. These included membership of several committees, including the post-war problems committee. While still on duty in Whitehall Backhouse was appointed director of naval ordnance in September 1920, a post for which his record clearly marked him out. He went to sea again in January 1923 for twenty months' command of the battleship Malaya, in the Atlantic Fleet, and then underwent senior officers' courses at Portsmouth. on 3 April, 1925, he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, vice Richmond. In May 1926 he hoisted his flag in the veteran Iron Duke as rear-admiral commanding the third battle squadron Atlantic Fleet for the usual one year of command, and then had a well-earned rest at home on half-pay.
In November 1928 Backhouse succeeded Vice-Admiral Sir Alaric Ernle Montacute (afterwards Lord) Chatfield as third sea lord and controller of the navy in William Clive (afterwards Viscount) Bridgeman's Board and remained under Mr. Albert Victor Alexander through the following labour administration (1929–1931), through the financial and political crisis of 1931, and under Sir Bolton Meredith Eyres-Monsell (afterwards Viscount Monsell) until March 1932. He had been promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral on 10 October, 1929, vice Oliver Backhouse, placed on the Retired List. His tenure of office as controller was a difficult time of stringent economy. Naval expenditure fell by eight millions between 1917 and 1932, and of this drop over four and a quarter millions came from the armament votes under the controller's supervision. It was a time when ‘disarmament’ was the international atmosphere and aggression had scarcely begun to show its head. Provision for the navy was not welcome to the labour government, and the coalition of 1931 was pledged to a general reduction of public expenditure. The Board of Admiralty had a prolonged struggle to maintain what they considered to be the minimum standard of efficiency, and in this Backhouse's sane judgement and unrivalled knowledge of the material needs of the navy were a tower of strength in preventing economy from going too far.
From his place on the Board Backhouse went to take command of the first battle squadron, with his flag in the Revenge, and to be second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, first under Admiral Chatfield and then under Admiral Sir W. W. Fisher [q.v.] . He was promoted admiral in February 1934, was relieved of his command three months later, and in August 1935 became commander-in-chief, Home Fleet, with his flag in the Nelson, one of the two newest and most powerful ships. At the coronation review in May 1937 the whole assembled fleet was under his command. He was relieved in April 1938, having been selected to succeed Lord Chatfield as first sea lord and chief of the naval staff. This office he took up in September, having in the meantime been appointed first and principal aide-de-camp to the king. It was a critical moment in world affairs, and the first sea lord was immediately plunged into business of the most exacting kind and had to be prepared to give professional advice on issues of major importance. But early next year his health began to fail; he relinquished his duties in May, was placed on the retired list in June, and a serious illness developed from which he died in London 15 July 1939. With the King's approval he had been specially promoted to admiral of the fleet a week previously.
Backhouse was a man of striking appearance, six feet four inches tall, with charming manners and a winning personality, of great strength of character and unswerving devotion to duty. His tireless love of his work and justifiable confidence in his own judgement led him somewhat to overlook the advantage of devolution to trusted assistants, both in high command afloat and in office administration, while keeping the control of policy and the ultimate decision in his own hands. He was recognized throughout the service as one of the ablest and most eminent sea officers of his time, and his premature death on the eve of the outbreak of the war of 1939–1945 was regarded as a national calamity. He was beloved by all who knew him well.
Backhouse was appointed C.B. (civil) in 1914, C.B. (military) in 1928, C.M.G. for war service in 1917, K.C.B. in 1933, G.C.V.O. at the coronation review in 1937, and G.C.B. in 1938. He married in 1907 Dora Louisa, sixth daughter of John Ritchie Findlay, of Aberlour, Banffshire, and had two sons and four daughters. The elder son, John Edward (born 1909), succeeded his uncle as third baronet in January 1944 and was killed in action in Normandy the following August.
- London Gazette: no. 28902. p. 7293. 15 September, 1914.
- London Gazette: no. 33038. p. 2566. 14 April, 1925.
- London Gazette: no. 33542. p. 6476. 11 October, 1929.
- "Sir Roger Backhouse" (Obituaries). The Times. Monday, 17 July, 1939. Issue 48359, col A, pg. 14.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/44.
| Preceded by
A. Ernle M. Chatfield
| Commanding Officer of H.M.S. Lion
1916 – 1918
| Succeeded by|
Arthur J. Davies
| Preceded by
The Lord Chatfield
| First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff
1935 – 1939
| Succeeded by|
Sir A. Dudley P. R. Pound