Stephen Wentworth Roskill (19031982), by Michael Noakes, 1978
Roskill, Stephen Wentworth (19031982), naval officer and historian, was born on 1 August 1903 in London, the second of four sons (there were no daughters) of John Henry Roskill (18601940), KC and judge of the Salford hundred court of record, and his wife, Sybil Mary Wentworth (18791931), daughter of Ashton Wentworth Dilke, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne. and were his brothers. He was educated at the Royal Naval College at Osborne and Dartmouth. In 1921 he was posted as midshipman to his first ship, the cruiser Durban, on the China station, where he was fortunate to act as research assistant to Lieutenant-Commander W. Stephen R. King-Hall, who was then writing a book on western civilization and the Far East. Here Roskill first learned how, in his own words, unremittingly arduous was the pursuit of history.
In 1927 Roskill began the long gunnery course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and HMS Excellent, gunnery being then the élite branch of the navy. He passed out third in the course. In 1930 Roskill married Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Van den Bergh, margarine manufacturer, from Holland. Her strength of character and devotion to principle matched his own. They had four sons and three daughters.
The 1930s saw Roskill steadily climb the peacetime ladder of promotion, serving as gunnery officer in the aircraft-carrier Eagle (19335) and the battleship Warspite (19369), with a spell as instructor at Excellent in 19356. While in Warspite he showed his mettle as a professional who would stand firm for what he believed to be right, refusing to take over the ship's armaments from the dockyards until numerous defects were remedied. He also pioneered the location of fire control beneath the armour instead of exposed aloft.
In March 1939 Roskill was appointed to the Admiralty staff, where he successfully insisted on the Swiss Oerlikon 20 mm gun instead of an inferior British design, and opposed the proposal of F. A. Lindemann that anti-aircraft guns should be replaced by rockets. He later advocated that each main armament turret should have its own fire-control radara radical innovation later adopted. However, his unflinching advocacy in these matters brought him into disfavour with more conservative seniors, and in 1941 he saw his posting as executive officer in HMNZS Leander in the Pacific as a form of rustication. Here he restored a slack ship's company to a high standard of efficiency and training, so enabling Leander to survive a Japanese torpedo hit in 1943. Roskill was reappointed to the ship in command as acting captain, and in 1944 was confirmed in rank as captain. In the same year he was awarded the DSC.
In 1944 Roskill was posted as chief staff officer for administration and weapons in the Admiralty delegation in Washington; in 1946 was nominated chief British observer at the Bikini atoll atomic bomb tests; and in 1947 appointed deputy director of naval intelligence. Sadly, increasing deafness caused by exposure to gun detonations at Excellent denied him the chance of promotion to flag rank, for in 1948 he was pronounced medically unfit for sea service. While the premature ending of his naval life was a keen disappointment, Roskill was now to achieve eminence in a new career as historian. In 1949 he was appointed the official naval historian in the Cabinet Office historical section. Although he had little previous experience as a writer and historian, he brought to his new profession the same seamanlike attention to detail, order, and exactitude that he had shown in his naval service and the same sometimes prickly determination to stand firm for what he believed to be right, even in the face of pressure from the most eminent.
It was thanks to him that the official naval history of the Second World War covered the entire war at sea, and not merely the Atlantic as once envisaged. The three volumes of The War at Sea (vol. 1, 1954; vol. 2, 1957; vol. 3, pt 1, 1960; vol. 3, pt 2, 1961), comprehensive, majestic, invested with a sailor's personal knowledge of the men and events as well as the historian's judgement, were to prove only the opening salvo in a prolific career as a writer. Outstanding among Roskill's contributions to twentieth-century history must be accounted his magisterial biography Hankey, Man of Secrets (vol. 1, 1970; vol. 2, 1972; vol. 3, 1974), his two volumes on Naval Policy between the Wars (196876), Churchill and the Admirals (1977), and his final work, The Last Naval Hero: Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty; an Intimate Biography (1980), a penetrating yet sympathetic assessment of Earl Beatty as man, fleet commander, and first sea lord. Roskill's forte as historian consisted in unrivalled professional understanding of naval matters, combined with scholarly thoroughness, mastery of detail, and ability to plumb the complexities of naval policy and strategy, although it could be said that his concern for detail sometimes tended to obscure the main thrust of his narrative. Roskill had no peer among twentieth-century British naval historians, only the American Arthur Marder rivalling him for depth of learning and sheer industry.
Roskill's distinction as a historian brought him a senior research fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1961; and in 1970 he was made a life fellow. He played a major role in the Churchill Archives Centre, and it was owing to his efforts that many important collections of naval papers were deposited there. Despite worsening deafness, Roskill participated to the full in the life of the college; a much loved colleague and a charming and considerate host to his many guests.
In 1971 he was awarded a LittD by Cambridge, elected a fellow of the British Academy, and appointed CBE. In 1975 he was awarded the Chesney gold medal of the Royal United Services Institute, and made an honorary DLitt by Leeds. In 1980 Oxford awarded him an honorary DLitt, an honour which gave him special delight. Roskill died on 4 November 1982 at his home, Frostlake Cottage, Malting Lane, Cambridge.
Correlli Barnett, rev.
personal knowledge (1990) · The Times (6 Nov 1982) · WWW · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1983)
CAC Cam., corresp.
CAC Cam., corresp. and papers | CAC Cam., corresp. with Monty Belgion
CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill
King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
NMM, letters to second Earl Beatty
NMM, letters to K. G. B. Dewar
M. Noakes, drawing, 1978, Churchill College, Cambridge [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£101,647: probate, 27 Jan 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales