William Milbourne James

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Admiral SIR William Milbourne James, G.C.B., Royal Navy (22 December, 1881 – 17 August, 1973) was an officer of the Royal Navy.

Early Life & Career

When a Lieutenant (G), James created the James Calculator, a slide rule and plotting board intended to assist in applying the experimental torpedo control method of deflection plotting.[1]

On the occasion of his retirement as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Francis C. B. Bridgeman wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill on 8 December, 1912:

This is the cleverest and most accomplished Gunnery Lieutenant in the Navy. He is responsible for the excellent gunnery efficiency of the "Colossus." Admiral de Chair would tell you more about him; but I hear on every side that he is quite an exceptional man, and it would be a matter of great satisfaction to the whole of the gunnery branch if recognition of his ability was awarded by promotion at this time.[2]

James was promoted to the rank of Commander on 1 January, 1913. On 1 February, he was appointed to the battlecruiser Queen Mary.[3]

In mid-1915, James's father-in-law noted in his diary:

It appears that James is getting himself disliked, or rather has a bad name for being constantly onshore. This failing is of long standing. He apparently has the young Lieutenant's view that days off are days when one must go onshore, a very unfortunate view in the case of a Commander.[4]

In March, 1916, James was fortunate to be whisked away from the doomed Queen Mary when he was appointed Flag Commander to Vice-Admiral Sir F. C. Doveton Sturdee, Bart., Vice-Admiral Commanding the Fourth Battle Squadron. This appointment placed him, initially, in the Benbow, which is from where he participated in the Battle of Jutland. After the battle, he followed Sturdee to the new flagship, Hercules. On 1 January, 1917, James was also appointed for War Staff duties.[5]

On 2 June, 1917, he was appointed to President for service in the Intelligence Division of the Naval Staff. From 7 July he was appointed a II Grade Staff Officer and was to receive a consolidated salary of £600 a year. He was promoted to the rank of Captain on 18 October.[6] In the Intelligence Division he took responsibility of I.D. 25 (also called "Room 40"), but did not impress one of the codebreakers there, W. F. Clarke:

He was a very different type to Hope [Herbert W. W. Hope], very pushing, very self confident. He had been a remarkable success as a Commander at sea but he came to a job which required other qualifications which, in my opinion, he did not possess. But luckily by then everything was so organised that we required little but a figurehead and for that he was admirably suited. For the changes in procedure which took place he was not responsible. When he came only about three of us were in uniform, within two months we all were. He vastly increased our numbers, impelled by the so prevalent idea that the larger one's staff the more important one was, a mistake from the efficiency point of view [which] was too often the rule in the last war. He got his promotion very soon. He has written the story of his work in Room 40 in a volume of his own reminiscences about which I can only say that I have never seen so many misstatements of fact, not of opinion, on so few pages.[7]

Inter-War Years

James was appointed Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence on 15 January, 1919.[8] On 12 February he was appointed a Companion in the Civil Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (C.B.) for his services during the war.[9]

He was superseded as D.D.N.I. on 20 March, 1920, and briefly served on a committee to consider the position and status of Petty Officers until 26 March. In April he was appointed in command of the light cruiser Curlew on the China Station on recommissioning.[10]

His father-in-law, Admiral Duff, then Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, asked him to come as his Chief of Staff and Flag Captain,[11] and in June, 1921, he assumed command of the cruiser Hawkins. He was superseded in command of Hawkins in September, 1922, and returned to Britain, to be informed that in the following Summer he would be appointed Deputy Director of the Royal Naval Staff College.[12] On 5 March, 1923, he was appointed to President for the Senior Officers' War Course, and on 11 June was appointed to the Staff College, becoming Deputy Director on 28 June. On 17 July, 1925, he succeeded to the position of Director. [13]

He was superseded as Director on 4 January, 1926, and appointed to Victory for the Senior Officers' Technical Course. On 1 November he was appointed in command of the battleship Royal Sovereign, which transferred from the Home Fleet to the Mediterranean on his assuming command and finishing her refit.[14] Shortly afterwards he became Flag Captain and Chief Staff Officer to Rear-Admiral David T. Norris in the First Battle Squadron, who hoisted his flag in Royal Sovereign.[15] He was appointed Naval Assistant to the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles E. Madden, Bart., on 11 November, 1927.[16]

James was appointed a Naval Aide-de-Camp to King George V on 9 April, 1928, vice Hallett.[17]

James was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral on 1 March, 1929, vice Strutt.[18] He was invited by Admiral Sir A. Ernle M. Chatfield to go as his Chief of Staff when he became Commander-in-Chief in the Atlantic Fleet. He was accordingly appointed to Nelson on Chatfield hoisting his flag in April.[19]

When Chatfield was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean on 27 May, 1930, and James went with him as his Chief of Staff in the Queen Elizabeth. He was superseded on 8 May, 1931.[20]

On 15 August, 1932, James was appointed Rear-Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron. He was re-appointed on promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral on 30 September, 1933. When Admiral Sir John Kelly gave up command of the Home Fleet that year he reported on James as follows:

A straight, loyal and upright character, and a peculiarly sunny and lovable disposition. A fine brain and a most imaginative mind.
He is full of ideas, many of which are sound, and some, in my opinion, definitely the reverse. He is inclined to be impetuous at times, and to act without sufficient thought. I think that he is, and is looked upon as being, somewhat of a "bounce".
He is immensely keen on whatever he takes up, but I am not sure whether he is able to inspire those around him with his own enthusiasms. He might, possibly, become tiring.
His knowledge of Naval History is exceptional, and he has an unusual faculty for expressing himself on paper - provided that it is typewritten!!
He is an indefatigable, but not always concise, conversationalist. One aspect of his verbiage - which many of us would be glad to share - is the gift of being able to make a speech, and a good one, at any moment and on any subject.
Another, and a less desirable one, is that, when presiding at a Meeting or Conference, his conversational lavishness and tangential movements of his mind prolong the meeting to the point of boredom of it's remaining members.
He usually handles his squadron well, and will improve in this respect with experience.
He keeps himself thoroughly up to date on the subject of modern fighting methods and tactics, and in the developments of armament and equipment.
As to whether or not he has the balance, the firmness, the decision and the forcefulness desirable in a First Sea Lord or for the Command of the Main Fleet, I am inclined to doubt, but this will, in all probability, be revealed during his next Command afloat. In any case, I have no hesitation whatever in recommending most strongly his retention and employment, afloat or ashore, as a Vice Admiral. I consider that he is exceptionally well fitted for the Appointment as Head of the War College.
In "Special Marking" I assess him as 90.
His Wife will, I think, be a great help to him socially in any post he may be called upon to occupy.[21]

He was superseded in command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron on 14 August, 1934.[22]

On 15 March, 1935, he was appointed President of a Committee on the future training of Officers for war. He was appointed for duty inside the Admiralty on 1 October, and on 29 October he was appointed a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. On 21 January, 1938, he was promoted to the rank of Admiral. He was superseded as D.C.N.S. in November.[23]

James succeeded Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery as Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, on 30 June, 1939. He gave up command on 30 September, 1942, and was placed on the Retired List on 29 October.[24] On 15 January, 1943, he was invited to stand as Conservative and National Government candidate for Portsmouth North in the by-election caused by the elevation to the peerage of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes.[25] He was adopted as the candidate at a meeting on 21 January.[26] The result was declared on 17 February, and James won the by-election, obtaining 6,735 votes to his Common Wealth independent opponent, Tom Sargant's, 4,545.[27] On 23 February he was appointed Chief of Naval Information at the Admiralty, and was superseded on 29 November, 1944. He did not seek re-election as Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North in the General Election of 1945. He reverted to the Retired List on 13 September, 1945.

See Also


  • Beesly, Patrick (1982). Room 40: British Naval Intelligence 1914–1918. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192814680.
  • James, Admiral Sir W. M. James (1946). The Portsmouth Letters. London: Macmillan & Co..
  • James, Admiral Sir William (1956). The Eyes of the Navy: A Biographical Study of Admiral Sir Reginald Hall. London: Methuen & Co..
  • James, Admiral Sir William (1951). The Sky was Always Blue. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd..

Service Records

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence
15 Jan, 1919[28] – 20 Mar, 1920[29]
Succeeded by
Geoffrey Hopwood
Preceded by
Beauchamp A. Francis
Captain of H.M.S. Curlew
Apr, 1920[30]c. Sep, 1922
Succeeded by
Harold E. Sulivan
Preceded by
Reginald G. H. Henderson
Captain of H.M.S. Hawkins
Jun, 1921[31] – Sep, 1922
Succeeded by
Argentine H. Alington
Preceded by
Barry E. Domvile
Captain of H.M.S. Royal Sovereign
Nov, 1926[32] – Dec, 1927[33]
Succeeded by
Gerard A. Wells
Preceded by
Wilfred Tomkinson
Vice-Admiral Commanding Battle Cruiser Squadron
15 Aug, 1932[34]
Succeeded by
Sidney R. Bailey
Preceded by
Sir Charles J. C. Little
Deputy Chief of Naval Staff
29 Oct, 1935[35]
Succeeded by
Sir Andrew B. Cunningham
Preceded by
The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Cork and Orrery
Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth Station
30 Jun, 1939[36]
Succeeded by
Sir Charles J. C. Little



  1. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1912. p. 27. (G. Branch No. 518, G. 4009/12). That "W. M. James" is this James is inferred.
  2. Bridgeman to Churchill. Letter of 8 December, 1912. Copies of Churchill-Bridgeman correspondence. p. 5. The National Archives. CAB 37/113. No. 135.
  3. ADM 196/46. f. 145.
  4. Duff diary entry for 11 July, 1915. National Maritime Museum. DFF/15.
  5. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  6. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  7. "Room 40 O.B. Chapter 3. The Overlords." f. 6. The National Archives. HW 3/3.
  8. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  9. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31176. p. 2237. 17 April, 1928.
  10. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  11. James. The Sky was Always Blue. pp. 122-123.
  12. The Sky was Always Blue. p. 129.
  13. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  14. "Naval and Military." The Times. Friday, 12 November, 1926. p. 21.
  15. James. The Sky was Always Blue. p. 140.
  16. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  17. The London Gazette: no. 33376. p. 2741. 17 April, 1928.
  18. The London Gazette: no. 33474. p. 1575. 5 March, 1929.
  19. James. The Sky was Always Blue. p. 153.
  20. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  21. The National Archives. ADM 196/90. f. 133.
  22. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  23. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  24. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  25. "Portsmouth By-Election." The Times. Saturday, 16 January, 1943. p. 2.
  26. "Labour Vote at Bristol." The Times. Friday, 22 January, 1943. p. 2.
  27. "Admiral M.P. for Portsmouth." Thursday, 18 February, 1943. p. 4.
  28. James Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  29. James Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/46. f. 146.
  30. The Navy List. (January, 1921). p. 756.
  31. Mackie, Colin. ROYAL NAVY WARSHIPS.
  32. Mackie, Colin. ROYAL NAVY WARSHIPS.
  33. Mackie, Colin. ROYAL NAVY WARSHIPS.
  34. "The Services" (Official Appointments and Notices). The Times. Saturday, 13 August, 1932. Issue 46211, col E, p. 13.
  35. "Flag Changes" (Official Appointments and Notices). The Times. Monday, 12 August, 1935. Issue 47140, col F, p. 10.
  36. "Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth" (Official Appointments and Notices). The Times. Friday, 17 February, 1939. Issue 48232, col F, p. 4.