Navy Chiefs Ordered Secret Purge of Gay Sailors
Admiralty found homosexuality rife throughout fleet
October 31, 2002
119 Farringdon Rd., London EC1 3ER England
By Alan Travis, home affairs editor, The Guardian
The Royal Navy ordered a secret crackdown on gay sailors and officers in
the late 1960s after an internal inquiry concluded that there was ample
evidence that homosexuality was so rife throughout the fleet that in no ship
was the practice unknown.
But navy chiefs privately admitted their purge was bound to fail as
"at least 50% of the fleet have sinned homosexually at some time in their
naval service life".
They concluded they "couldnít afford to throw them all out as the
navy would not be adequately manned" and so added to Winston Churchillís
claim that the only traditions of the Royal Navy were "rum, sodomy and
The secret admiralty files released yesterday at the public record office
under the 30-year rule lay bare how the navy implemented the ban on gays and
lesbians serving in the armed forces. It was finally abolished in January
The files reveal that although service chiefs justified the ban on the
grounds that homosexuality lay naval ratings and officers open to the threat
of being blackmailed into "turning traitor", their most senior legal
advisers admitted there was not a single known case of this happening.
The files show that the 1969 panic over homosexuality in the navy was
sparked by two previously unknown cases and by concerns over the number of
sailors ending up with the catamites of Bugis Street when on shore leave in
Singapore. In one case the navy considered dismissing more than 300 sailors.
It led to Admiral Sir John Bush, the commander in chief, western fleet,
issuing orders to all ships that "there is regrettably ample evidence
that homosexual practices are rife in the fleet but for a variety of reasons
disciplinary action can only be taken in a small minority of known
cases". He told captains senior ratings "must be made to accept
responsibility for stamping out this vice", adding that no one could
afford to be "complacent since it is doubtful that there are any ships
where such practices are unknown".
He had been urged to take this action by the director of naval security who
told him that although gay sex among consenting adult civilians had been
legalised two years earlier, in 1967, it was time to end the "kid-glove
approach" which had had "little or no effect". The decision
followed a special investigation by Captain Donald MacIntyre, of the naval
historical branch, whose report reveals that the navy was considering
dismissing more than 300 sailors for being involved in the Bermuda case.
This involved a male brothel which had been visited by a large number of
naval ratings. "The owner of the flat had been in the habit of inviting
naval ratings into his home, lavishly entertaining them in his well-equipped
flat, giving them presents for partaking in grossly indecent acts and posing
for sexually perverted photographs."
When the flat was raided, naval security officers found an address book and
a large number of indecent photographs, including many marked with the names
of naval ratings and their ships. "All such persons are blackmailable.
This is just the sort of information a foreign intelligence organisation would
like to get hold of," said the chiefs, but they had to conclude it was
probably a case of "pornographic big business".
The records show at least 40 ratings were thrown out of the navy following
this case and proceedings were pending against a further 300, few of whom
Captain MacIntyre says, "would be classed as potentially disloyal by any
other standards". But the file does not record what happened to them.
It also mentions a second big caseóthe Eagleóbut gives no further
Service chiefs agonised over the practice of sailors visiting the catamites
of Bugis Street. The file says many sailors visited the area "for
kicks", got drunk and "end up sleeping with male prostitutes known
as catamites" who dressed up convincingly as females.
Captain MacIntyre reports that some of them were beautiful, dressed well
and smelled delicious. "Many senior staff have visited Bugis Street to
see for themselves and agree that they also could easily be fooled ONCE."
The admiralty decided to give all crews visiting Singapore a stern vice
squad lecture on the grounds that the young sailors were not hardened
The files show that before the Bermuda case about 40 to 50 ratings were
dismissed every year in the 1960s for being gay and around a dozen officers
were allowed to retire early because they were suspected homosexuals.
The MacIntyre report says it was generally accepted most males experienced
homosexual tendencies during adolescence but 95% grew out of it by the age of
22. He concedes that after long periods at sea masturbation could not be
considered abnormal but the "display of bodies by the modern arrangement
of bunks" on navy ships did not help those with such urges.
The papers also reveal that senior legal advisers admitted the navy was
wrong to use the 1962 case of the admiralty clerk, William Vassall, who sold
secrets to the Russians, to justify its ban on gays. "There is no known
case of a naval officer or rating being blackmailed on homosexual grounds [it
was Vassallís desire for money that brought about his tragedy]," but
that did not stop them concluding the drive against suspected gays was
necessary because it "doesnít mean a hostile intelligence service will