Sir William Wake-Walker was a British admiral best know for his role in the hunt for the Bismarck in May 1941. He entered the Royal Naval College as a cadet in 1903, and first went to sea in the following year as a midshipman on HMS Good Hope, the flagship of the 1st cruiser squadron.
By the start of the First World War he had risen to lieutenant, and was a torpedo specialist. He served as torpedo lieutenant on the Cochrane from January 1913 until September 1915, when he returned to HMS Vernon, the torpedo school, to prepare for service on a battleship. In July 1916 he was promoted to lieutenant-commander, and appointed to the new battleship HMS Ramillies. She was launched in September 1916, but did not join the Grand Fleet until November 1917. Although she was damaged during the launch, this was not actually an unusually long gap – even in peacetime it could take up to a year after the launch date for a battleship to be completed, but it did mean that Wake-Walker was only at sea on her for the last year of the war, long after the main action in the North Sea was over.
After the war Wake-Walker remained in the navy. He was promoted to commander in June 1920, to captain in 1927 and to flag rank on 10 January 1939. During that time he serving in a mix of land and sea duties. He was at sea from April 1919-August 1921 on HMS Coventry, from 1925-1927 as executive office of HMS Royal Oak, from 1928-1930 as captain of HMS Castor on the Mediterranean and China stations, from September 1932 to July 1935 as captain of HMS Dragon on the America and West Indies station, and from January 1938-1939 as captain of HMS Revenge in the Home Fleet.
On land between 1921 and December 1925 he served at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, then on the naval staff and then at the tactical school, Portsmouth. From July 1930-September 1943 he was deputy director of the training and staff duties division of the Admiralty naval staff. From October 1935 until January 1938 he was director of torpedoes and mining at the Admiralty.
His first flag rank appointment, in September 1939, was as rear-admiral commanding the 12th Cruiser Squadron of the northern patrol. In October he returned to the Admiralty as rear-admiral in charge of mine-laying, but his first important post came in the next month.
The first German “secret weapon” of the Second World War was the magnetic mine. A small number of these weapons were laid off the British coast by U-boats and destroyers, and they caused chaos, at one point nearly closing the port of London. Fortunately the Germans only had a very small number of mines at the start of the war, which gave the British time to develop countermeasures. At the end of November a special staff was created at the Admiralty to hasten the production of these countermeasures, and Wake-Walker was placed in command. His task was made much easier on 23 November when a complete mine was recovered at great risk from the mudflats at Shoeburyness. A variety of countermeasures were soon developed, amongst them the development of mine sweeping equipment that could be attached to aircraft, the L.L. sweep which involved dragging a cable between two ships, and the degaussing process, which reduced the magnetic field of ships, making it less likely that they would trigger the mines.
In May 1940 Wake-Walker played an important role in the evacuation from Dunkirk. Admiral Ramsay, commanding the evacuation, believed in delegating responsibility to someone on the scene, rather than attempting to exert central control over a large operation. Accordingly at the start of the evacuations he had posted Captain W.G. Tennant to take command on the beaches. It soon became apparent that it was also necessary to have someone in control of the fleet of ships of Dunkirk, and on 29 May Wake-Walker was appointed Rear-admiral, Dover, with command of seagoing ships and vessels of the Belgian coast, while Tennant remaining in command on the beaches.
Wake-Walker reached Dunkirk on the minesweeper Hebe early on 30 May, and for the rest of the evacuation spent most of his time directing operations from small boats under constant fire. On 1 June the destroyer leader HMS Keith, his flagship, was sunk by enemy action, and from 2 June Wake-Walker directed the ships from a motor boat in the harbour. He was appointed a Companion of the Bath for his role in the evacuation.
From June to December 1940 he returned to mines, this time as commander of the 1st mine laying squadron, responsible for setting up the east coast mine barrier. This was designed to protect coastal shipping off the east coast from the threat of German attack. This was followed by a short spell in charge of Force K (December 1940-January 1941), with his flag in the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable.
From January 1941 until February 1942 he was commander of the 1st cruiser squadron. It was in this post that he came to public attention, during the hunt for the Bismarck. In May 1941, when it was known that the Bismarck had sailed from her Norwegian base, that squadron contained two ships – HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk. The Suffolk was equipped with a modern radar set, and so on 23 May 1941 Wake-Walker moved his squadron into the gap between the edge of the ice and the minefield off the north west corner of Iceland, hoping to detect the Bismarck if she attempted to break out into the Atlantic.
At 7.22pm the Suffolk became the first British ship to sight the Bismarck, followed soon after by Wake-Walker’s flagship, the Norfolk. The German battleship opened fire on the Norfolk, but the British cruisers were able to take cover in nearby fog and track the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen using radar. For the rest of that night the two ships managed to maintain contact with the Germans despite the appalling weather conditions and low visibly, only loosing that contact for a brief spell between midnight and 2.47am on 24 May.
Wake-Walker’s cruisers successfully guided the nearest British hunting group towards the Bismarck. This consisted of the elderly battlecruiser HMS Hood, then serving as the flagship of Admiral Holland, and the very new battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The two sides came together in the brief battle of the Denmark Strait, just before 6.00am. In a devastating few minutes HMS Hood was lost with all but three of her crew.
This left Admiral Wake-Walker in command of the surviving ships. He quite correctly decided not to risk continuing the battle with two cruisers and a damaged and only partially ready battleship and instead decided to track the German ships. He believed that Admiral Tovey, with strong elements of the Home Fleet, was approaching at speed.
Once again it was the Suffolk’s radar that made the tracking possible. During the rest of 24 May the three British ships stayed in the trail of the Bismarck, but early on the morning of 25 May they lost contact. The Suffolk had been carrying out a series of zigzags, making radar contact at the end of each maneuver. At 3.06am the Bismarck was where she was expected to be, but after the next zigzag she had gone. In the gap between contacts, the Bismarck had turned from her southern course onto a south-eastern one, and was making straight for St. Nazaire.
Admiral Wake Walker had no choice but to make a guess as to what the Bismarck had done, and unfortunately he chose the wrong option, searching to the west and the south west of the last known position. This was the last the Suffolk would play in the battle, but the Norfolk turned east, and was present during the final part of the battle, on the morning on 26 May. For his success in tracking the Bismarck for so long, Wake-Walker was appointed CBE.
This was his last command at sea. In February 1942 he left the 1st Cruiser Squadron. In April he was promoted to vice-admiral and in May he was appointed third sea lord and controller of the navy. His main achievement in this role was the creation of the great fleet of landing craft needed to carry out the series of ambitious landings that began with Operation Torch and ended on D-Day. On 8 May 1945 he was promoted to full admiral, and in September he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, then one of the most prestigious posts in the navy, but on 24 September 1945 he died suddenly at home in London.