Vice Admiral John Collings Taswell Glossop

By Denis Fairfax

John Collings Taswell Glossop was born on 23 October 1871 at Twickenham, Middlesex, England, son of George Goodwin Pownall Glossop, vicar of Twickenham, and his wife Eliza Maria, née Trollope. Passing out of HMS Britannia in 1887, he served for a short time in the Channel Fleet. His lifelong association with Australia began in 1888 when he arrived as a Midshipman in HMS Orlando, flagship of the Australian Squadron. He was then transferred to HMS Calliope and to HMS Egeria, both serving in the Pacific. Promoted Sub Lieutenant in 1891 and Lieutenant in 1893, he specialised in navigation, returning to the Australia Station in 1896 as Navigating Officer of HMS Royalist.

Glossop returned to England in 1900 and after two years as an Instructor in Britannia was given his first command, HMS Lizard, in June 1902. This gunboat had only a short commission in Australian and New Zealand waters before being sold in 1904. Promoted Commander in June, he was appointed Drafting Commander at the Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham. He came back to Australia in 1909 in command of HMS Prometheus, a protected cruiser. Much of the next two years was spent in the Pacific Islands. From Prometheus he returned to England and was promoted Captain in June 1911. Officially reported by the Australian Naval Representative in London as being “anxious to command a ship of the RAN” and “in entire sympathy with the Australian Navy movement”, he was given command of the new light cruiser, HMAS Sydney (I), in June 1913; he had held the RAN rank of Captain since March. Sydney sailed for Australia in company with the new flagship, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, and received a tumultuous welcome on arrival in Sydney in October.

In the early months of World War I, Sydney searched for enemy warships off northern New Guinea and took part in the capture of Rabaul. She then proceeded to Albany, Western Australia, to escort the first Australian and New Zealand troop-convoy to Egypt. On 9 November 1914 the convoy was some fifty miles (80km) off the Cocos Islands when the wireless station there reported the presence of a German cruiser. Sydney was detached to investigate. The raider, the light cruiser SMS Emden, stood out to sea and engaged Sydney at extreme range, killing four sailors and destroying the range-finder before Sydney opened fire. However, Sydney, with the advantage in speed and armament, thereafter stayed out of Emden's range, reducing her to a blazing shambles and driving her aground. Sydney left to pursue the fleeing collier, Buresk, took off her crew and watched her sink, then returned to Emden to find her ensign still flying. Glossop's demands for surrender were ignored; he fired two salvos after which the ensign came down and white flags were shown. No assistance could be given to Emden immediately as the German landing party on Direction Island had to be dealt with. Glossop was unaware that they had escaped in a schooner after destroying the wireless station but Sydney's diversion to the island meant that medical aid was not given to Emden until late next day. With the last survivors, including Captain von Müller, transhipped, Sydney made for Colombo to rejoin the convoy.

Emden had cut a swathe of destruction through British and allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the news of her end was received with jubilation. Glossop was congratulated by the Australian Naval Board but has been criticised since both for being caught by Emden's first salvo and for firing on the wreck. Basing his assessment of Emden on the standard references, he was unaware of modifications to her guns which increased their range, and was initially caught by surprise; he correctly fought the remainder of the action out of his enemy's reach. The final shots at Emden, provoked by the defiant flying of her battle ensign and the possibility that she could still resist with torpedoes and rifle fire, were necessary to compel a definite sign of surrender, namely, the white flag. Glossop cannot be reproached for doing his duty according to the usages of naval warfare even though he himself, a genuinely humane man, found it very painful - 'it makes me feel almost like a murderer'.

Although they were arduous years of command for Glossop, the remaining war service of Sydney patrolling in the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the North Sea was in a sense a protracted anticlimax. On 9 February 1917 he was relieved by Captain JS Dumaresq and sailed for Australia to take up the three-year appointment of Captain-in-Charge of Naval Establishments, Sydney. This post, third in importance in the Australian Navy, brought him into sustained contact with civilian attitudes to the war; deeply patriotic himself, he was upset by the slowness of recruiting and the difficulties involved in dealing with unions in the manning and coaling of ships.

Glossop was promoted Commodore 2nd Class on 1 March 1919 and in June presided over the controversial court-martial of mutineers of HMAS Australia. The severity of the sentences caused a political uproar and he was attacked in the Federal Parliament. He was defended by the acting Navy Minister but the affair may have contributed to his failure to be appointed Australian Naval Representative in London, a post for which he was recommended by the Naval Board. He reverted to the RN in October 1920, and after a short period as coast guard captain at Queenstown, Ireland, was promoted Rear Admiral on 20 November 1921 and retired next day. He became a Vice Admiral on the retired list in 1926.

Glossop had been mentioned in dispatches early in 1914, was appointed CB after destroying the Emden and in 1917 was awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun and the Légion d'honneur. On 19 January 1918 he had married Ethel Alison McPhillamy at All Saints Anglican Cathedral, Bathurst, New South Wales. They had a daughter and a son who became a RN officer. In retirement Glossop lived near Bridport, Dorset, England, and was active in the Anglican Church, local hospital and British Legion affairs; he relaxed with fly fishing and philately. Survived by his family, he died of septicaemia at Weymouth on 23 December 1934 and was cremated. He is commemorated by tablets in Bothenhampton Church, Dorset, and in the naval chapel, Garden Island, Sydney.

Described by the Bulletin as a “suave, bald, soft-voiced little man who looked the antithesis of a fire-eater”, and to his officers “the embodiment of the true English gentleman”, Glossop exemplified the best type of naval officer of his generation. Dedicated to his profession, respected and well liked by his men, and chivalrous to the defeated, he has an enduring place as commander in the first sea battle of the RAN.