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Norman Wodehouse

The son of the Reverend Frederick Wodehouse and his wife Alice Norman Atherton Wodehouse was born in Basford on 18th May 1887. From an early age he was destined for a naval career and after spending his early years at the Royal Naval School Lee on Solent he entered the Britannia Royal Naval College as an Officer Cadet in 1902, being promoted to the rank of Midshipman the following year. After a successful time at Britannia, where he too firsts in all the required subjects he was commissioned as an acting Sub Lieutenant in 1906, with his rank being confirmed the following year in 1907 which was also the year that he was first capped by the Royal Navy at rugby. The skills that he had acquired at the Britannia College obviously transcended those that would be required for a career at sea.

Wodehouse missed the Army v Navy match in 1908, the year that he was promoted to full Lieutenant by the Navy; he was then a continual member of the Navies side from 1909 until 1914 winning seven Royal Navy caps in total. At the same time his career as a member of the United Services side was equally illustrious. Given his rising stature as a rugby player it is perhaps surprising that Wodehouse played only once for the Barbarians during a drawn game against Leicester in 1909. The following year saw two major milestones in the young Wodehouse’s life. He was selected both to specialize as a gunnery officer by the Royal Navy and also to play rugby by his country for the first time.  His debut cap was against France on March 10th 1910 during the 3-11 away win that was part of England ’s championship winning run, their first since 1892. Following this Wodehouse was a permanent fixture in the England side until 1913 winning fourteen caps in total and scoring two tries for his country, both in 1911 against France and Scotland .

An uncompromising forward his leadership skills, which were to become increasingly evident to the Royal Navy, also led to his captaining England on six occasions. This included the whole of the 1913 season, where an undefeated England claimed an elusive first Grand Slam. As the Times put it “such success as the English teams had this season could only have been achieved under the best leadership”. This was very much the pinnacle of his international career and after the three points to nil defeat of Scotland on March 15th 1913 at Twickenham that secured this achievement he never played for his country again.

During the First World War Wodehouse served as a gunnery officer primarily on the Battleship HMS Revenge, taking part in the Battle of Jutland. In 1915 Wodehouse dived over the side of his ship to save a drowning seaman who had fallen from another ship saving him from drowning, an act of bravery that earned him the Royal Humane Society Silver Medal. His competence as well as his bravery was also recognized in 1915 with promotion to Lieutenant Commander.

By the end of the war Wodehouse was thirty one. Although his first class rugby career was over his naval career continued apace. Promoted to full commander in 1919 he was posted to China as fleet gunnery officer, a tour of duty that earned him the Chinese order of the Striped Tiger. Returning to Britain in 1923 Wodehouse married Theodosia Boyle, having in the fullness of time two sons. Despite his growing family the demands of the Naval service continued. Promoted to Captain in 1926 he attended the Imperial Defense College to undertake the senior officer’s war course before commanding the cruisers HMS Ceres and HMS Calypso. This was eventually followed with command of the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth in 1931. After a tour as Flag Captain in the Mediterranean on HMS Barham in 1938 Wodehouse was appointed head of the British Military Mission in Portugal and is credited with helping to prevent Portugal falling under the influence of the Spanish Fascists. He also found time to serve as Aide de Camp to King George VI which resulted in his being presented the Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1939.

Promoted to Rear Admiral three months before the outbreak of World War Two he was appointed as Admiral in charge of the Naval Dockyards in Gibraltar before retiring from the Royal Navy as a Vice Admiral on May 8th 1940. Wodehouse, however, was not the sort of man to sit at home whilst there was a war on.

Almost immediately after his official retirement from naval service Wodehouse returned to sea duty as Commodore (2nd Class) Royal Naval Reserve. Although this was essentially a drop in rank it was a common move for officers in his experience who wished to do their bit. His new duties meant he was now responsible for the safety of convoys of Merchant vessels, an often less than simple task given the individuality common amongst the Masters of the Merchant fleet who were used to a huge degree of autonomy whilst on their own ships. Attached to HMS Eaglet in Liverpool Wodehouse finally took command of convoy OB337, which sailed on June 20th 1941. This convoy was made up of vessels headed for southern Africa, with Wodehouse himself sailing on, the Robert L Holt bound for Warri in Nigeria . With the OB series of convoys as the constituent vessels were headed for a variety of ports in Sothern Africa it was usual for the convoy to disperse and each vessel head it’s own way from a position roughly seven hundred and fifty miles west of Lands end.

In these early stages of the war at sea the U boats’ unrestricted campaign against allied Merchant vessels was proving as devastating as it had in world war one. The beauty of the convoy system was that it made the merchantmen both hard to find by the enemy and as far as the Royal Navy was concerned made protection, or at least retribution, far easier to achieve. The dispersal system used in the OB convoys was a great weakness and one that the U Boats were more than happy to exploit along the coast of West Africa . Shortly after the convoys dispersal the Robert L Holt with Wodehouse aboard met the U69 on July 4th 1941. It was a predictably one sided affair and the Robert L Holt was sunk by gunfire. There were no survivors.


"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

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© D A Hunter, 2008
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