A statue dedicated to one of Britain’s most important naval heroes has been unveiled today (25 October) on Anglesey.
The statue and memorial garden in Rhosneigr is dedicated to Sir Max Horton, a former resident. He was a master submariner who, as Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, won the most important battle of the Second World War.
Admiral Horton’s tenure as C-in-C, Western Approaches, saw him carry enormous responsibility and relentlessly push his command in the effort to keep the supply lines to Britain open. From his headquarters in Liverpool, Horton secured the Allied victory in Europe by ruthlessly hounding the German U-boat menace.
The importance of the campaign was, simply, had he not won the Allies could not have defeated Germany. Yet while other leaders such as Montgomery and ‘Bomber’ Harris, became very well known, Max Horton was forgotten.
Pathé newsreel (no sound) footage showing Admiral Sir Max Horton at the surrender of the U-boats.
Born in 29 November 1883 at Maelog House Hotel, Sir Max spent his formative years in the village on the northwest coast of Anglesey. His parents owned the hotel, which still stands today and is now a restaurant. The people of Rhosneigr have, over the past ten years, made a huge effort to ensure the admiral is remembered.
Locals had a memorial plaque installed in 2013, but have now created a memorial garden as part of a community project. The centre-piece is a 7ft statue of the admiral overlooking the Irish Sea. Cast from bronze, the statue has been created and donated by Liverpudlian sculptor Terry McDonald.
Naval leaders, serving and former sailors, and locals attended as the memorial was unveiled at 11am on Friday morning.
Max Horton joined the Royal Navy in September 1898. Having an interest in engines, machinery and motorcycles the newly formed submarine branch appealed to him.
During his years with the Silent Service, Horton developed a reputation for coolness. In the Great War he, on 13 September 1914, sank the German cruiser Hela off Heligoland. After evading his pursuers and reaching Harwich, he began the tradition of British submariners hoisting the Jolly Roger following a successful patrol. He soon earned the DSO after sinking the destroyer S116.
His subsequent actions in the Baltic helped disrupt trade between Sweden and Germany despite the strong presence of the High Seas Fleet, sinking a number of merchant ships before the winter ice formed. He also sank another destroyer and the next year sank a third and damaged the cruiser Prinz Adalbert. Such was his success, the Baltic was nicknamed ‘Hortensee’ (Horton’s Sea) by the Germans.
In June 1920 Horton became the Chief of Staff to what would become Rear-Admiral, Submarines and soon developed a reputation for his tough and exacting standards. In October 1932 Horton was given command of 2nd Battle Squadron, where he doubled as second-in-command of the Home Fleet. He then led 1st Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean during the Abyssinian Crisis and the Spanish Civil War.
By 1937, now vice-admiral, Horton headed the reserve fleet. With hostilities approaching, he was most anxious his ships be ready and was delighted that King George VI would inspect the reserve – all 133 ships – in August 1939. Horton was credited for the mobilisation and, with war looming senior observers could only deem his labour as timely.
In December 1939 Horton was appointed Rear-Admiral, Submarines. He felt the striking power of his force could not have full effect unless he could work in close co-operation with naval staff and RAF Coastal Command. With his trademark thoroughness and attention to detail, Horton understood how to employ RAF assets and could make the bureaucratic cross-service effort work.
In April 1940, when it was intended to mine the Leads – the islands running along the Norwegian coast – Horton had submarines positioned along the coast. At the same time, it was discovered the Germans were sending troop transports – many flying false flags – to invade Norway. Restrictions on firing on neutrals were lifted and 21 transports were sunk. Horton’s actions and knowing just where to place his craft delayed the invasion.
During the tense summer of 1940, Horton’s submarines were active on anti-invasion patrols. In the skirmishes off Norway, they, with the surface fleet, inflicted such damage on the German fleet that it could never seriously challenge for command of the sea.
While Horton, like every other British military leader, was concerned about invasion, he was more convinced blockade posed the greater danger. Knowing submarines so well, the admiral was convinced that U-boats could bring trade – the lifeblood of Britain – to a standstill.
Horton’s work was held in such regard that in October 1940 he was offered command of the Home Fleet, which he refused, believing he wouldn’t have the same independence of action. He was, however, promoted to full admiral in January 1941 and received acknowledgement from the Board of Admiralty: “The prestige of the Submarine Service has never stood higher than it does at this moment.”
A more personal accolade from Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, read: “Thank God we have not had to guard our convoys against the attacks of your commanders.”
Thank God we have not had to guard our convoys against the attacks of your commanders
On 19 November 1942, Horton took up post as C-in-C, Western Approaches and became responsible for fighting the Battle of the Atlantic, the defining battle of the Second World War.
The Atlantic lifeline – bringing in troops, equipment, food and other supplies – was crucial to keep Britain fighting. More than a million tons a week were needed but the U-boats preyed on merchant shipping. Their objective: to starve Britain out.
The ‘Six in one trip’ celebration, as Lord of the Admiralty, A.V. Alexander speaks to congratulate Captain Frederick Walker of his Escort Group’s terrific feat. Sir Max Horton stands behind Lord Alexander.
His opponent was Admiral Karl Dönitz, an experienced submarine commander and regarded as a wily fox – albeit tunnel-minded, dour, and every bit the committed Nazi. The battle was almost a personal struggle between these figures; two master submariners, both trying to out-think the other, setting thief to catch thief, both constantly probing for weaknesses.
Stephen Roskill in The War at Sea 1939-1945 stated of Horton: “With his knowledge and insight, his ruthless determination and driving energy, he was without doubt the right man to pit against Dönitz,” and he equalled Dönitz in first-hand experience of submarines, in understanding their operations and how the minds of submariners worked. His ruthless will also matched Dönitz’s, and it was the German who lost.”
The battle was almost a personal struggle between these two figures; two master submariners, both trying to out-think the other, setting thief to catch thief, both constantly probing for weaknesses.
Horton hit the ground running, he had already implemented a major measure in 1940, when he broached the use of dedicated rescue ships in convoys. Smaller, more agile, merchant vessels were converted into Convoy Rescue Ships. Fitted with increased berthing space, a small operating theatre, and more boats, they took the pressure off escorts to rescue stricken crews. Just six of these vessels were lost and they saved more than 4,000 sailors on 797 convoys.
The admiral skilfully used signals intercepts to foil his opponents moves, and also foresaw the adoption of wolf-packs (where groups of U-boats attacked in unison) and instituted new tactics. Ordering escorts to be less defensive and more proactive in hunting U-boats, merchant ship losses first rose before falling as German losses mounted.
Then, Horton deployed support groups – frigates and other such vessels attached to convoys with the freedom to peel off and relentlessly hunt U-boats while the convoy proceeded with full escort. The success of these groups was decisive: ‘six in one trip’ moments generated heroic ‘stars’ for Pathé newsreel – such as Captain Frederic Walker and his charge, HMS Starling and 2nd Escort Group – so boosting British spirits and shattering morale among U-boat crews.
The tide slowly turned. In May 1943 the 49-ship ONS-5 convoy came under repeated attack by at least 30 U-boats. While 13 ships were lost, aircraft and two escort groups saw six U-boats sunk. The action heralded change, a period the Germans came to know as ‘Black May’, where 25% of the U-boat fleet was lost.
The enemy could not stop the flow of supplies to Britain. Horton oversaw the essential defeat of the U-boats and ensured overall victory, though it came at huge cost: more than 72,000 sailors lost their lives. More than 3,500 Allied merchant ships – totalling more than 14.5 million tons – and 175 Allied warships were sunk.
Admiral Sir Max Horton formally took the surrender of a token eight U-boats at Lishally, near Londonderry, on 14 May 1945, but it took until September for the surrender to be fully observed. In the end, 156 turned themselves in, dozens more were scuttled or destroyed.
Soon after the war was over, Horton retired. His tenure as C-in-C Western Approaches was remarkable; having built an enormous and ruthlessly administered command he out-thought and defeated an implacable enemy.
Sadly, the weight of high command made great inroads into Horton’s health, and he died at the early age of 67 in July 1951. He was given the honour of a State Funeral, which was held in Liverpool, from where he had exercised command in the life-and-death struggle in the Atlantic. ∎