Last edited: February 14, 2005

Navy Chiefs Ordered Secret Purge of Gay Sailors

Admiralty found homosexuality rife throughout fleet

The Guardian, October 31, 2002
119 Farringdon Rd., London EC1 3ER England
Fax: +44/171/837-2114

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 lash".

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 2000.

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 details.

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 homosexuals.

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 not try".

[Home] [World] [United Kingdom]