Rear Admiral Wilfred Neville Custance

RADM Custance

Wilfred Neville Custance was born in South Kensington, London on 25 June 1884 and entered the Royal Navy on 15 January 1899 as a Cadet in the training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth. He was appointed as a Midshipman on 15 January 1900 and joined his first ship, the battleship HMS Ocean, which operated in the Mediterranean and also on the China Station. Promoted Sub Lieutenant in July 1903 he served in the destroyer HMS Foam in the Mediterranean during 1904-05.

He was promoted Lieutenant in January 1905 and appointed to the battleship HMS Venerable. Custance had several service connections being the grandson of General William Neville Custance, CB (1807-1886) and the nephew of Admiral Sir Reginald Neville Custance, GCB, KCMG, CVO, RN (1847-1935) and this assisted his career. Custance specialised as a gunnery officer in 1906 after training at the Gunnery School at Whale Island, Portsmouth and then spent a period of time as an instructor at the Sheerness Gunnery School. When the school closed in 1908 he joined HMS Blenheim, the depot ship for the 1st Destroyer Flotilla, and became responsible for the gunnery armament and training for the flotilla.

In 1910 he joined the staff of the Admiralty as the Inspector for Target Practice within the Royal Navy. Custance married Miss Winifred Olive Cave in London on 18 February 1911 and they later had three children. He was promoted Lieutenant Commander in January 1913 and in May of that year was appointed gunnery officer of the Home Fleet battleship HMS Vanguard. Custance was to serve in her for the next four years including the Battle of Jutland on 31 May/1 June 1916 during which time the ship fired 57 rounds of 12-inch ammunition at the already damaged light cruiser SMS Wiesbaden (which sank the following day) and attacking German destroyers. Vanguard suffered no damage or casualties in the battle.

Vanguard was at Scapa Flow, Scotland when Wilfred Custance was promoted Commander on 30 June 1917. On 9 July 1917 he was invited to dinner by fellow officers onboard the battleship HMS Royal Oak, followed by attending a concert in a ship that was moored alongside. With the concert over Custance was preparing to return to Vanguard when there was a massive explosion on board that ship which was totally destroyed with the loss of 843 lives. As the gunnery officer he was questioned at the subsequent inquiry regarding the safety of the embarked ammunition some of which might have been beyond its safe usage date. Ultimately it was thought a fire had broken out, due to a failure to close several boiler room doors, which allowed temperatures below deck to increase which caused combustion of ammunition in one of Vanguard's mid-ships magazines.

Commander Custance was then sent to Whale Island as the gunnery commander where he oversaw training for the remainder of the war. He then became Executive Officer of the cruiser HMS Birmingham, serving on the Africa Station, followed by service in the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty. In late 1923 he was appointed as Executive Officer of the battle cruiser HMS Tiger which operated as a sea going gunnery training ship. Wilfred Custance was promoted Captain in July 1925 and later commanded the Town Class light cruiser HMS Yarmouth which operated in British waters.

In 1928-29 he commanded the light cruiser HMS Castor, on the China Station, before returning to the United Kingdom to oversee the final six months of the construction of the heavy cruiser HMS York and then become her commissioning Commanding Officer on 1 May 1930. York was also the flagship of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet. Captain Custance returned to command the Gunnery School, at Devonport, during 1932-34 before returning to sea in command of the Nelson Class battleship HMS Rodney which was part of the Home Fleet. Rodney was selected as the King’s guardship for Cowes Week during the 1935 Jubilee year for King George V during which time Custance was Aide de Camp to the King.

Custance relinquished command of Rodney in early 1936, at Gibraltar, and returned to the United Kingdom where he was promoted Rear Admiral on 17 February 1936. He completed the Senior Officers Tactical Course at Portsmouth and in early 1937 took command of, and prepared, the naval contingent for the coronation of King George VI, in London, on 12 May 1937.

Rear Admiral Custance was appointed as a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) in the New Year’s Honours List for 1938 and on 26 February of that year was appointed as the Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron (RACAS); taking over from Rear Admiral Richard Lane-Poole, CB, OBE, RN. During his period of command the Australian Squadron enhanced its capability in personnel numbers, ships and ability (with increased training opportunities) as the potential for war with Germany increased. Custance was forced to relinquish his command in early September 1939, due to ill health, and return to England.

Rear Admiral Custance died from illness, near Aden, on 13 December 1939 while returning to the United Kingdom onboard RMS Orontes and was buried at sea.