Early in 1905, having completed my four years as Controller, I was appointed to take command of the Atlantic Fleet and was made an Acting Vice-Admiral. The Admiralty had decided to make a new disposition of the Fleets and had formed the Atlantic Fleet, consisting of eight battleships and a cruiser squadron, to be stationed in the Atlantic with its base at Gibraltar, so that it would not be far from home in case of necessity. At that time the German Fleet was gradually being increased and had become a real menace to ours, so that the Atlantic Fleet had to be close at hand to join up, if necessary, with the Channel Fleet for service in the North Sea.
My Flagship was the King Edward VII, the latest battleship built, and the first fitted to burn oil sprayed on coal. I asked the King and Queen, through their Secretary, if they would give their portraits to the ship named after His Majesty, and this request was graciously complied with. When my time in the King Edward was finished, the King said he would be very pleased if I would keep the portraits; they are now in my house. The King also conferred on me the Order of the Knight Commander of the Victorian Order – K.C.V.O.
The Atlantic Fleet, when I took over command, consisted of the King Edward VII, the Victorious, flying the flag of the Rear-Admiral, Bridgeman, the Illustrious – Captain Symonds, the Magnificent – Captain Farquhar, the Majestic – Captain Kingsmill, the Mars – Captain Marx, the Prince George – Captain Stokes, and the Commonwealth (King Edward VII class) – Captain Startin. The older ships were afterwards superseded by three other ships of the King Edward class, namely New Zealand, Hindustan, and Dominion. The First Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Rear-Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, was attached to the Atlantic Fleet.
I left England in the King Edward VII early in 1905 and relieved Lord Charles Beresford at Gibraltar. I found the Fleet in very good order and we went for a short cruise, returning to Gibraltar in March, 1905. Her Majesty Queen Alexandra, with Princess Victoria and Princess Charles of Denmark, arrived at Gibraltar in the Victoria and Albert, shortly after. The Queen came on board the King Edward VII and had a thorough look round the ship, being most interested in the bread-making plant (which was the first to be fitted in any of our ships), and in the wireless; and sent the following telegram to King Edward:
“To the King. London.
“Here I am on board Edward VII; she is a beautiful ship – send my love from here.
I organized a Regatta for Her Majesty and she was delighted with the competitions and took numerous photographs. I think that but for news we had of the Kaiser coming to Gibraltar, the Queen would have stayed there a little longer; but on hearing that, Her Majesty left. I had kind letters from her Secretary sending me a small token of her esteem.
The Kaiser arrived in the Hamburg at Gibraltar on or about April 8th, 1905, and his accompanying cruiser, the Frederick Carl, in coming alongside the breakwater collided with the battleship Prince George, which had to be docked immediately.
We were dining that night with the Governor to meet the Kaiser, but owing to my having to arrange about docking the Prince George, my wife and I landed after the Kaiser and only just arrived before him. Directly after the Kaiser arrived, he went up to Lady May and said: “That was very well done.” Apparently he had seen the whole incident and was much amused at it. My wife sat next to him at dinner; he was very pleasant and talked a great deal.
Next morning I went on board the Hamburg with the intention of speaking to the Kaiser about the collision; I saw him, and told him that it was a small affair, that the mistake made might be made by any Captain and that I hoped he would not take any further notice of it, but he would not give in. I understand, however, that afterwards the Kaiser did pardon the Commander of the Frederick Carl, so my request was granted.
The Kaiser came on board and had a look round the King Edward. He said, “I don’t want to know any of your ‘official secrets.’ “I replied, “Well, your Majesty, we have no secrets, except the submerged tube, and I am afraid I cannot show you that.”
He was very much interested in the attempt to use oil fuel for the boilers without making too much smoke; I told him that we had practically succeeded in this. Unfortunately, when I took the Fleet out of Gibraltar some of the ships made a good deal of smoke, and the Kaiser sent me the following card:
“H.M. compliments to Admiral May.
“H.M. was very touched by the Flagships burning German coal this morning, obscuring the view of the harbour and shrouding the ships in smoke. H.M. thanks the Admiral for the kind little attention.
“Please send promised signalman.”
I then took the Atlantic Fleet into the Mediterranean to join up with the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Domville. We carried out various set problems, one portion of the Fleet acting against the other under different Admirals, which was interesting.
On leaving the Mediterranean, the Fleet visited Madeira and Tenerife before returning home. The Admiralty then ordered me to take the Fleet to Brest to assist in the entente cordiale between the French and ourselves. We arrived at Brest on July 10th, 1905, and had a great reception. The Admiral in command of the Brest Fleet was Admiral Caillard, and the Prefet Maritime was Admiral Péphau. We had numerous dinners, receptions, balls, etc., and a hundred officers and myself were invited to Paris; we were put up (of course, free of expense) at the Hôtel Continental.
I had palatial quarters for myself, my wife and daughter. The Chief of the Admiralty at that time was Admiral de Maigret, and we were photographed together in the Quadrangle of the Hôtel Continental. We lunched with the President, and there was a grand Military Review at Longchamps. Our Ambassador, Sir Francis Bertie, would not take any part in the official receptions. We were also entertained by the civil authorities at the Hôtel de ville.
The President conferred on me the Order of Grand Officer Légion d’Honneur; the Rear-Admiral and the Captains received lesser degrees of the same order.
Extract from “Times” July 15th, 1905.
Brest, July 13th.
“This has been the most interesting, and perhaps the most important, day of the Anglo-French naval celebrations at Brest. The Admirals, the staff, and officers of the British Fleet have entertained their comrades of the French Fleet at déjeuner on board the Flagship, a brilliant garden party has been given by Admiral Pephau at the Naval Prefecture, and to-night there is the gala performance at the opera, for which well-known artists from Paris have been engaged; while Admiral May, with 108 other officers, will leave for Paris at midnight, to be entertained in the French capital. Meanwhile the town is en fête and there are abundant entertainments for visitors, while the sun has graced the auspicious day.
“At the déjeuner on board the King Edward VII, Sir William May had on either hand Sir Francis Bertie, the British Ambassador, and Admiral Caillard, commanding the French Northern Squadron, and all the French and British Admirals and Captains were present, besides the civil officers of Finisterre. Through the kindness of Admiral May, I was privileged to be present at what was a singularly interesting event. Personal friendship has now grown up between the officers and they met fraternellement, each French officer being seated between two British officers. In addition to the French Commander-in-Chief, there were present Admirals Leygué, Puech, Thomas, and other Flag officers, and Captains Saint Paul de Sincay, Lefèvre, Schilling, Lamson, Le Clerc, Jacquet, Lephay, Rabouin, and many more. The first toast was proposed by Admiral May, and was that of the President of the Republic, of whom he said, speaking in French, that it was not necessary to speak at length since M. Loubet has ‘tout à la fois la sympathie et l’admiration du peuple Anglais.’ The toast was received with prolonged cheers, and the band played the ‘Marseillaise.’
“Admiral Caillard next proposed the health of the King and the Royal Family, ‘God save the King’ being played.
“Admiral May then resumed. It was unnecessary, he said, to express the gratification it gave the British officers to receive their French comrades on board the King Edward VII. He was delighted to see the British vessels ‘amarrés fraternellement parmi les beaux vaisseaux de la flotte Franchise.’ After a few words with reference to the great pleasure it afforded himself and his officers to visit Brest, where they had received so warm a welcome, and to see the poetic country which gives France so many fine seamen, the Admiral concluded: ‘Aujourd’hui l’entente entre la France et la Grande Bretagne est la plus cordiale et j’espère que la rencontre des deux flottes, et on peut dire la rencontre des deux nations, rendra encore plus forte cette amietié. Je lève mon verre à la longue durée de cette entente et à la gloire et la prospérité de la France.
“Loud cheers followed this speech, and Admiral Caillard replied as follows: ‘Je réponds toujours avec plaisir á l’Amiral Sir William May qui sait trouver dans notre langue, Messieurs, des accents si touchants pour traduire des sentiments que nous partageons tous. Je me réjouis de voir nos nations sympathiser, nos équipages se rencontrer á terre dans un même sentiment de solidarité maritime. En attendant les réunions qui rendront les liens plus étroits, et qui auront lieu dès demain sur les bâtiments de sa Majesté Britannique, la franche cordialité qui accompagne maintenant la courtoisie de la première heure peut donner á penser aux regrets que nous éprouverons á nous séparer. Jouissons donc de l’heure présente, qui laisse dans nos coeurs le souvenir ineffaèable des sympathies légitimes qui unissent nos deux nations.’
“Admiral May then read a telegram he had received from the Equerry-in-Waiting to the King: ‘I have had the honour of submitting your telegram to the King. I am commanded in reply to inform you of the pleasure which the King entertains at the kind and excellent reception which has been accorded to His Majesty’s Fleet on its visit to Brest.’ ”
I was again at Gibraltar for the winter months; and, unfortunately, two of the ships, with the Assistance (the new repair ship), were at Tetuan Bay carrying out firing exercises when the swell set in, and the Assistance went on shore. This, I think, was entirely due to the Senior Captain having neglected to take the three ships to sea as he ought to have done, after having been warned in the instructions about the swell during the winter months.
I enjoyed hunting with the “Calpe.” Pablio Larios, the Master, used to hunt the hounds and did it exceedingly well; we often had very good sport. In March, 1906, when at Gibraltar, the Algeciras Conference assembled. There were present representatives of all the nations who were concerned in the question of Tangiers. They put up at the Algeciras Hotel, where my wife was staying, and we had very interesting conversations with them.
In April, 1906, the Prince and Princess of Wales (the present King and Queen), arrived at Gibraltar, from the East, on board the Renown. I gave a picnic in the Cork Woods, and we all rode out, with the exception of the Princess and my wife, who drove in a carriage. We had a pleasant picnic, the Prince and Princess were most gracious, and afterwards went to the Larios for tea.
The next cruise was to Madeira and the Canaries. The Portuguese authorities were informed that we were going there, and the King (Carlos) sent instructions that we were to be entertained, which meant that the Government would have to pay. When we reached Madeira, I called on the Governor and he, of course, returned my call and asked us to dine; we had a very pleasant dinner and he was most hospitable, and gave me a dozen bottles of Madeira, eighty years old.
From there we went on to San Miguel in the Canaries and paid the usual official visits; my return visit to the General-in-Command was rather amusing. I landed, with my Staff, on a sweltering hot day and had to wear epaulettes and a cocked hat. We were received with fireworks and crackers and then drove up to his office, where there was a brass band playing “God Save the King” as loud as it could. After the usual formalities, I waited, as I thought, a sufficiently long time, then rose to go, but the General said, “Oh non, Monsieur, attendez un moment.” He rang the bell and in came a waiter with champagne all poured out. The General then drank the King’s health, and I had to reply to that. After a minute or two, I tried a second time to leave, and again he said, “Attendez un moment, Monsieur,” rang the bell, and in came more champagne. The General rose once more, this time proposing my health and that of the British Fleet, and again I had to reply. A third time I said I must go, again he rang the bell for the waiter, who now appeared with a big bouquet of flowers on a tray. I thought that this was the last; but no, the performance was repeated for the fourth time, the waiter’s tray on this occasion bearing a photograph of the General, which he presented to me. Even after that he wouldn’t let us go until he had taken us round the Barracks.
We had another expedition to some hot springs at San Miguel, where the Government and officials gave us a great luncheon. We went by one of the despatch vessels and then by carriage. As we were driving through the town, fair ladies pelted us with hydrangeas which are very common there. We had to wait an hour for luncheon while the Governor and his entourage put on their Uniform. The table was all laid out, and really I think you could hardly have put a fly on it. We had quite a good luncheon, any amount of wine and several speeches. I was glad when it was over.
We returned to England in June, 1906, and the Fleet was mobilized for manoeuvres. I was given command of the Blue Fleet, consisting of sixty-eight vessels; Sir Arthur Wilson was in command of the Red Fleet, and Lord Charles Beresford had the Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar. The general idea for the manoeuvres was that my Fleet, supposed to be much inferior to the Red Fleet, should try and entice it away and eventually prey on shipping and create a scare in Great Britain. I left Berehaven, where we had assembled, and steamed right away west, and then went south. We had not gone very far when we were seen by some of the Red cruisers. However, I went on down south to carry out my plan of destroying merchant shipping. We were down off the Portuguese coast when Admiral Wilson’s main Fleet was sighted. I had then five battleships of the King Edward class, and three of the older vessels, the Majestic class.
These latter I knew would be no good, on account of their slow speed so in the night I despatched them to return to the entrance of the Channel and act as cruisers destroying merchant shipping. About noon next day, I found the Red Fleet only about five miles off, so I thought that I was done; but I turned homewards and ordered them to start the oil fuel, and, to my surprise, my five battleships outdistanced the battleships of the Red Fleet, although theoretically the latter were a knot and a half faster than the King Edward. I arrived in the Channel something like sixteen hours ahead of the leading Red Battle Fleet, and wired to the King, c/o the Admiralty, that I was in command of the Channel. In order to make the scare complete, we went on to Scarborough, captured, and took the town. The Admiralty then negatived the Manoeuvres. The telegram to the King disturbed him in his night’s rest, and I was called upon to give my reasons for sending it. I replied that my orders were to create a scare in the country, and I much regretted that, in my keenness to carry out my orders, I had disturbed His Majesty. I received the following telegram and letter:
Copy of Telegram
“Please let Sir W. May be informed that I was not annoyed, but surprised by his telegram.
“The explanation is quite satisfactory, and I like to see an officer as keen as Sir W. May.
“(Signed) E. R.”
Copy of Letter
July 9th, 1906.
“My Dear Sir William,
“Thank you for your letter and am very pleased to say that the King is quite happy about the telegram; he was only a bit startled at first, but afterwards was amused at the situation.
“I congratulate you very much on your splendid steaming performance, it must have been a great sight to see your big battleships dashing through the water. Your experience of the value of oil fuel in maintaining speed will be very useful for future developments.”
“(Signed) Lord Tweedmouth.”
In June, 1906, I was made Knight Commander of the Bath, K.C.B. In July, 1906, we went to Lagos Bay for Manoeuvres, with Admiral Wilson and Lord Charles Beresford, and there carried out set pieces; this was quite interesting, and gave everybody experience. After the Manoeuvres we went to Bangor in Ireland, where we remained till September, 1906, when we returned to Gibraltar.