Captain A.B. Greig – Captain Superintendent 1935-39

[Capt Greig (l) with Admiral Little on Founders' Day 1938]




Little has been written about the fourth Captain Superintendent of the Nautical College, Capt. Alexander B. Greig OBE, DSC, RN. Known to the cadets as ‘Old Unconscious’ due to his rather easy-going, laid-back style, he was another remote figure who left little personal imprint on the school during his four years at the helm.


Greig was born in 1888 and entered the Royal Navy aged 16 at the start of 1904. When the First World War broke out ten years later, he was serving in submarines and subsequently spent time on E8, V2, E53 and L3 – the last three as commanding officer.


Greig’s DSC, and an award from the Russian Tsar – the 4th Class Order of St. Vladimir, was won in 1915 for his part in E8 in sinking the German armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert some 20 miles west of Libau in the Baltic Sea on 23rd October, 1915. E8 – an early British submarine of 652 tons armed with four torpedo tubes and eight torpedoes – fired a spread of torpedoes at a range of about 1,300 yards, detonating the Prinz Adalbert’s ammunition magazine. A massive explosion then destroyed the cruiser which sank immediately with the loss of 672 crew. Only three survived what turned out to be the greatest single loss of life for the German Baltic forces during the war.


After the war Greig continued to serve in submarines until 1926 when, by then promoted to Commander, he was appointed commanding officer of the minesweeper HMS Fermoy. In 1928 he was posted to the Mediterranean in two cruisers, HMS Cardiff and HMS Curacoa. Returning to the UK in 1931, he served in the sub-depot ship HMS Dolphin before doing two administrative jobs in HMS Victory. Aged 46, he retired from the Royal Navy in September, 1935 when he was promoted to Captain and awarded an OBE.


At the NCP, his time is notable for two clashes with Sir Philip Devitt, one of which he won and the other lost. The first involved a comprehensive building programme which he championed as part of a drive to get rid of the unsightly wooden huts and earth closets scattered around the campus – in his words “belonging to the barbarian days.” Initially, he was rebuffed by Sir Philip for financial reasons but eventually succeeded in getting a College Shop built in 1936 (which still stands today behind the Falklands Chapel), three houses constructed in 1937 at the bottom of Prince’s Drive for the Chaplain, Director of Studies and Bursar, living quarters built at the east end of Devitt House for the Instructors, and a central toilet opened for cadets in 1938 which became known as the Crystal Palace (now the Peter Points Library).


Greig’s other dispute with Sir Philip and the Board centred on the school’s poor academic record. By the late-1930s the School Certificate Examination had become widespread in public schools – but not at Pangbourne where precedence was given to nautical subjects. In 1937 Greig pointed out to the Board that this situation was untenable given that the exam had rapidly become a minimum qualification for anything but careers at sea in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy – and even they were on the verge of accepting the exam. The Board opted to duck the issue. It was unresolved when war broke out in 1939 and went on being unresolved into the late-1940s.


At the NCP Greig and his wife Eileen “enjoyed the social cachet involved in living in Devitt House” in the words of Lionel Stephens’ history of the College “with its ample supply of servants and frequent dinner parties.” But he soon fell out with Jackie Blair, the irascible Executive Officer, as had his predecessor Commander Tracy. When war broke out in September 1939, he was quickly recalled to the Royal Navy and seems to have left the NCP with some relief.


Greig’s background in the RN had previously involved several stints based in Northern Ireland. Among his wide circle of contacts was John Godfrey, the Admiral who had been appointed Director of Naval Intelligence at the start of 1939. Godfrey, like many in London at the time, was suspicious of the neutrality of the Irish Republic but lacked information about attitudes in Dublin and wanted his own eyes and ears there as well as some sort of coast-watching force to look out for any German intrusions. So he created a new post, Naval Attache, in the British Embassy in Dublin and selected Greig for the role.


According to Patrick Beesly’s biography of Godfrey, Very Special Admiral, Greig “soon established close unofficial relations with the (Irish) Defence Department” arranged visits to London by Irish officers to help with the coast-watching organisation being set up and encouraged exchanges of security-related information between Dublin and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the North. Following the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Godfrey himself visited Dublin and alter appointed a Staff Officer (Intelligence) in Belfast to work with Greig to get information on all questions affecting Ireland which concerned the Admiralty and to “maintain overt, as opposed to covert, contacts throughout the country.”


By the second half of 1941 it was clear that while the republic of Ireland was determined to “cling to neutrality,” any threat from Germany had faded and the British need, in an emergency, for port facilities on the Irish coastline had faded with it. Greig was recalled to London and posted as Naval Officer in charge of Weymouth on HMS Boscawen. Eighteen months later, on May 31, 1943, he died from an undefined illness. He was 55.