Jody Baker: Inspector Baynes On Churchill And Conan Doyle And Submarines

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It is beyond the scope of this article (and this writer) to comment upon the technology of the submarine or the technical aspects of submarine warfare. Those are better left to Joseph Coppola whose excellent article, "Submarine Technology and The Bruce-Partington Adventure," may be found at 43 The Baker Street Journal, 146 (September 1993). 

Here we consider certain contributions of Arthur Conan Doyle to the promotion of naval preparedness of the Empire and the importance of a strong submarine capability in the naval forces of a great nation. In this effort Doyle had the assistance of a young reporter, lecturer and seeker of elective office whose military dashing and derring-do had captured the attention of the public.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Winston L.S. Churchill met early in the career of the latter. Both of them, you may recall, participated in the Boer War -- Doyle as a doctor with a field-hospital unit and Churchill as an impetuous battle-wise war correspondent. 

In 1900, after Conan Doyle had returned home, he was much in demand as an author of mystery fiction and as a speaker. This was the period of public clamour for more of Holmes. ("The Final Problem" was published in 1893; the re-appearance of Sherlock Holmes in installments of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" began in August 1901.) Doyle made a try for Parliament. He stood for election to the Edinburgh seat in 1900, but he was defeated.

By 1900 Churchill had returned as a true war hero. He had name-identification from his great news stories of the war. Added to this were the heroics of capture, war-prisoner, and prison escape -- combined with an uninhibited willingness to talk about himself. He rode the crest of his new-found popularity to elective office, capturing the Oldham seat in Parliament in the 1900 elections. 

No documentary evidence has been found to support the suggestion of a close or intimate friendship between these two, but Doyle had a fondness for the courageous young man, and Churchill worked well with the older Doyle. There was a relationship between the two which spanned the years.

"He [Doyle] was ... very fond of the young Winston Churchill, whom he met briefly in Bloemfontein, where Churchill had been a war correspondent. He admired Churchill's energy, bulldog pugnacity, and sheer drive, and continued to see him at intervals for most of his life."

 (Charles Higham, "The Adventures of Conan Doyle," W.W.Norton & Company, 1976, p.167) 

Shortly after his election in 1900, Churchill was in need of funds and undertook a lecture tour:

"He started out on his lecture tour. With the help of a magic latern, the predecessor of our movie machine, he told attentive audiences about his adventures in the Boer war, particularly his escape from Pretoria. "The greatest names in England took the chair when the young hero spoke. Lord Wolseley led off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the father of Sherlock Holmes, was second. Lord Londonderry, the Marquess of Ava, the Duke of Marlboro put themselves at hi disposal. (Rene Kraus, "Winston Churchill, A Biography," The Literary Guild of America, 1940, p.108) 

It is not surprising, then, that Doyle supported Churchill's noble and Herculean effort to fortify and protect the British Isles in those perilous times before the first World War. Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. Both he and Doyle recognized the dangers at play.

In the years preceding that war there were a few who could read the signs and anticipate the inevitable -- those who realized that "there's an east wind coming," and who knew what that meant. But many failed to understand, or intentionally refused to acknowledge, these truths. Conan Doyle and Churchill both had the vision to see the threat that lay beyond the east horizon in the menace of the German U-Boats: 

"There can be no question that ... Conan Doyle was very much aware of the U-boat threat in 1912.  Indeed, the purpose of the story `Danger!' was to alert Britain to this threat. And it cannot be an accident that Conan Doyle wrote the story only a few weeks after Winston Churchill, newly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, made a statement at the 118th meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence (July 18,1912)...." (Charles Higham, `The Adventures of Conan Doyle' W.W. Norton & Co.,1976, p.230) 

In Conan Doyle's "Danger!" John Sirius is a fictional submarine commander of a hypothetical minor European power. He is able, with a reduced fleet of eight submarines, to sink five fictional major British warships. The story was intended to emphasize recognition of the efficacy of the submarine as an instrument of warfare. (For more information on "Danger!" and its effect upon preparedness see Michael Hardwick, " The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes," (St.Martin's Press, paperback 1992, pp.150-51) 

At this time Doyle was also writing letters and articles, and he was speaking publicly, in seeking to arouse a slumbering nation. He had the support of Churchill in this effort.

"In an article,`Great Britain and the Next War’, he [Doyle] asserted that Germany was planning a U-boat blockade. The article, and his busy campaigning in letters and speeches through 1912 and 1913 for effective anti-U-boat surveillance and protective devices, were largely opposed in official circles. His one strong supporter apart from Churchill was Admiral Sir Percy Scott...."
* * *   "Sir Percy Scott begged for additional submarines. ... His and Churchill's urgent requests were, to the lasting disgrace of the government, not acted upon until it was almost too late." (Charles Higham, `The Adventures of Conan Doyle' W.W. Norton & Co.,1976, p.231) 

Doyle and Churchill were out and about in the villages and the by-ways, in the cities and the countryside, attempting to persuade and to prod, to lure and to lead, the national conscience into properly preparing for the defense -- the defense of ports and harbors, of coasts and beaches, and of those "broad and sunlit uplands," about which Churchill was to speak so beautifully in later years in "A Message to the People: Their Finest Hour."

All the while, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson were also doing their part, in their own way. They were retrieving, and restoring to the Admiralty, the plans for our own submarine, the Bruce-Partington [BRUC]. And by bringing the spy, Von Bork, and his crowd to heel, they were saving our Royal Navy's secret codes and signals from compromise by the enemy [LAST]. 

Inspector Baynes, of the Surrey Constabulary
Always a step ahead of Sherlock Holmes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at


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