HMS Montagu and the cost of arrogance | Taking Stock

By Tim Raetzloff | Feb 08, 2017

Few have probably heard of HMS Montagu, but I would imagine that many have heard of the story of the battleship and the lighthouse. The two stories go together.

The battleship/lighthouse story is often told as if it happened on the Salish Sea between an American battleship or aircraft carrier and a Canadian lighthouse. The American vessel sees a light ahead and signals for it to change course. The light ahead suggests that the American vessel should change course, instead.

After an exchange of signals, the American vessel announces that it is the flagship of Admiral Brasshat and they had better do as told. The light ahead then announces that it is manned by lighthouse keeper 2nd class Smith and it is a lighthouse. The point being that even an admiral can’t force a lighthouse to move out of his way – he will simply need to adapt his own course to reality.

HMS Montagu never visited the Salish Sea, but I suspect that it was the real story of HMS Montagu that provided the germ of the battleship/lighthouse story. In 1906, HMS Montagu was one of the newest, most powerful battleships in the Royal Navy.

It is true that the completion of HMS Dreadnought later that year would make Montagu and its sisters obsolescent, but that was still a future that Montagu wouldn’t survive to see.

In May 1906, HMS Montagu was steaming at high speed in Bristol Channel. Montagu came upon a pilot cutter and asked directions to Hartland Point. The pilot cutter gave correct directions, which the officers of Montagu said couldn’t be correct. The men on the pilot cutter shouted back that if Montagu maintained its course and speed it would be aground on Lundy Island in 10 minutes. Montagu did maintain its course and speed and was aground on Lundy Island in 10 minutes, as predicted.

Then, the comedy became funnier. The captain sent a boat to go to the lighthouse to the north to send a message to the admiralty that Montagu had gone aground and needed assistance. The boat crew found a lighthouse on north Lundy Island. But, when informed where they were, the officers of the boat got into an argument with the lighthouse keeper as to which lighthouse it was. The lighthouse keeper finally settled the argument by telling them that he knew which lighthouse he had been assigned to and this was it.

Even after running aground, the arrogance of the officers of an important battleship wouldn’t let them admit that they could have been wrong. They were wrong at every point, and could have taken advice that would have changed the outcome. But, they did not listen. The story sounds a lot like the story of the battleship and the lighthouse.

The arrogance of power applies to battleships and lighthouses. It also applies to business success. It becomes easy to believe that you can do no wrong and stop listening to warnings around you. Microsoft and Boeing have both supplied evidence of failings in judgment by senior executives. Both have been big enough to run over the shoals so far, but there may always be more dangerous shoals.

The lesson of the battleship and the lighthouse still applies. HMS Montagu has been forgotten by time, but its lesson should still apply.

As a footnote, the Admiralty expended substantial resources to refloat HMS Montagu, and succeeded in temporarily running its sister ship HMS Duncan aground, as well. All efforts failed and HMS Montagu was scrapped in situ over the next 15 years. A few remnants remain for weekend divers to explore. Too bad we didn’t get that for the Underwater Park in Edmonds.

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