How Gay Panic Gripped 1960s Royal Navy
October 31, 2002
By Dominic Casciani, BBC News Online community affairs reporter
The Royal Navy was so gripped by a security panic over gay servicemen in
the late 1960s, admirals believed at least half of the entire fleet had
Documents released by the Public Record office reveal commanders buried a
series of scandals including homosexual affairs on an aircraft carrier,
transsexual prostitutes in the Far East and hundreds of men using a "male
brothel" in Bermuda.
One admiral concluded that homosexual activity was "rife" and a
special inquiry called for more moral education to prevent the defences being
The ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces was only lifted in
January 2000 after a protracted human rights battle.
Sir Winston Churchill once reportedly said that the only naval traditions
were "rum, sodomy and the lash".
But the navy had long insisted that gay personnel were not only detrimental
to good discipline but also prey to blackmail.
Servicemen were either disciplined or discharged for homosexuality under
But by the late 1960s social attitudes were changing as the government
The age of permissiveness, however, had failed to permeate the navy as
commanders uncovered a string of scandals in 1968.
By the end of that year 40 men had already been discharged for homosexual
relationships, many of them linked to events on the aircraft carrier HMS
While the details of that event are not recorded, the admirals believed
that the larger "Bermuda case" exposed more than 400 men to
potential blackmail by foreign agents.
The documents reveal a local man on the island ran a brothel frequented by
There, they took part in "grossly indecent acts and [posed] for
sexually perverted photographs".
Special investigators found the Bermudan man kept the names of the men and
their ships, both in a special address book and on the back of the
The urgent report concluded that all the 400 men needed to be specially
interviewed because they were "blackmailable" by foreign powers.
Whether or not they were discharged is not reported.
Singapore prostitute crisis
The high command in London brought in retired captain Donald MacIntyre to
His findings included a potential health disaster in Singapore where
sailors who had caught diseases from local male or transsexual prostitutes,
known as Catamites, were afraid to reveal the source of their infections.
One sailor reportedly picked up a prostitute who he believed to be female.
Realising he wasn’t who she appeared to be, the sailor reportedly declared:
"Blimey, you’re all there!" Nevertheless, he apparently became
This kind of incident led admirals to argue that most of the men accused
were only inadvertently homosexual, rather than dangerous
Back in London, Admiral Sir John Fitzroy Duyland Bush, head of the Western
Fleet wrote to all commanders.
"There is, regrettably, ample evidence that homosexual practices are
rife in the Fleet," he told captains.
"I have a strong [belief] that many of the men are not perverts but
basically normal men whose standards of behaviour are thoroughly lax."
Admiral Sir Frank Roddam Twiss, the Second Sea Lord, became involved,
warning commanders to be on the look out for "unnatural vice"
attributable to changing moral attitudes in civil life.
"The time has come to take a less permissive attitude in the
Fleet," he said.
Divisions at the top
But not all of the top brass agreed.
The then head of naval law, considering the staffing implications of mass
dismissals, appeared to encourage the navy to accept the permissive society.
He urged admirals to recognise the "current astonishingly rapid
changes in sexual morality of the whole western world".
The Navy, he warned, would lose promising men because of youthful
indiscretions which were not necessarily a threat to national security.
Commanders worried at the possibility of losing men had confided to him
that "50% of the fleet have sinned homosexually at some time in their
If that were the case, he went on, then the navy was only afloat because it
was not very efficient at rooting out the offenders.
While the policy of discharging offenders involved in public acts of
indecency in front of "hand-clapping audiences" was valid, there
should be more flexibility in the rules, he argued.
"There have been military forces who have accepted homosexuality but
who nonetheless have been renowned both for bravery and discipline," he
"It is not necessary to carry out a witch hunt for the more discreet
offenders ... that it goes on discreetly and hidden away need not cause us too
This recommendations appeared to be rejected. By the middle of 1969, a new
education programme was in place.
All new recruits would be lectured on the evils of homosexuality—and
commanders were instructed to watch out for further crises that could play
into the hands of a blackmailing enemy.