Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Rutland of Jutland: From Heroism to Disgrace

Flt. Lt. Frederick Rutland—Hero

The Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 was the great naval battle of World War One. It was also historic as it was the first time that an aircraft was involved in a naval battle. After contact had been made between the British and German cruiser screens, Flight Lieutenant Frederick J Rutland (1886–1949) was ordered to take off at 15:08 hours for reconnaissance in Seaplane No.8359—a Short 184—from HMS Engadine, a seaplane tender. He and his observer, Lt. Gerald Livstock,  reported course changes of one of the enemy cruisers before a carburetor pipe broke and curtailed the sortie. Rutland was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) "for his gallantry and persistence in flying within close distance of the enemy light cruisers."

He earned further recognition at Jutland for diving overboard—against orders—to save a wounded sailor who had fallen in the ocean while being evacuated from his damaged ship. For this act of bravery he was awarded the Albert Medal in Gold. His notable war service continued after Jutland. On 28 June 1917, Flight Commander Rutland took off in a Sopwith Pup from a flying-off platform mounted on the roof of one of the gun turrets of the light cruiser HMS Yarmouth, the first such successful launch of an aircraft in history.

Rutland (Left) and Livstock

Rutland had joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman in 1901. He was graded as flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in December 1914,  awarded his aviator's certificate by the Royal Aero Club on 26 January 1915 after training at Eastchurch  and promoted to lieutenant on 7 January 1916. By the end of the war, he had become one of the most admired war heroes of the Royal Navy, but in the next phase of his life, Frederick Rutland would betray his service and his nation. He would be assigned a code name for his new life—Agent Shinkawa.

After an adultery scandal tarnished his reputation in the British military, Rutland saw no future in the service and hoped to leverage his fame elsewhere. That opportunity arose when he was approached by Shiro Takasu, a Japanese naval attaché, in December 1922 with an attractive job offer. Rutland retired from the navy in 1923 and moved to Japan for four years, where he earned a high salary as a consultant for Mitsubishi, teaching pilots how to land on aircraft carriers. He returned to the mundane life of a London businessman in 1928 but could not bear the boredom. Exciting prospects returned when Takasu reconnected with Rutland in London in 1931 and made another tantalizing proposition: How would he like to move to sunny Los Angeles and rub shoulders with movie stars as an emissary for the Japanese Navy?

Rutland's Sopwith Pup Takes Off from the Forward
Turret of HMS Yarmouth, June 1917

Max Everest-Phillips, a former British diplomat to Japan who has written about his exploits, says "Rutland played a significant role in the evolution of Japan's offensive capability that made the attack on Pearl Harbor possible."

The spy helped "facilitate Japan's capacity to develop aircraft carriers, the technology that enabled Japan in 1941 to launch a 'first strike' attack in the US Pacific." The Japanese paid him the equivalent of $600,000 a year—ten times the salary of a Japanese admiral. His paymaster was Japanese Navy official Eisuke Ono, whose daughter Yoko later married John Lennon.

"Rutland fed them details of US troop and fleet movements, military preparedness and warplane production," says author of  a new Rutland biography Ronald Drabkin. "He placed a former IRA member as his spy in a Lockheed plant developing the new P-38 Lightning fighter plane, to obtain specs." He liaised with Japanese agents in Mexico to send secret messages across America's southern border, and fed information to the Japanese embassy in Mexico City. One of Rutland's secret agents was Charlie Chaplin's longtime butler, Toraichi Kono. Rutland used his contacts within Hollywood's British expat community to gain information from former officers, but his time was running out. The FBI had been watching him, tapping his phones, and monitoring his meetings with Japanese agents and forced him to return to England in 1941.

Interesting Later MI-5 Photo of Rutland
Compare to Top Photo

While MI-5 had ample evidence of Rutland's spying against America, they had no proof he had spied against Britain and so he remained a free man. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Rutland was taken into custody in London by MI-5 and was interned in Brixton prison for the duration with Nazi sympathisers including British fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

Disgraced and despondent, on 28 January 1949, Rutland turned on the gas stove in a small hotel in the Welsh village of Beddgelert and lay down to die. In a suicide note addressed to his eldest son, he wrote “My life has been an adventurous one, always full of excitement. I have always told myself that so long as life was worth living, I would live it to the full, and when it no longer held any real interest, it would be time to go."

Sources:  Hollywood Reporter, Wikipedia, Daily Express


  1. Rutland was originally part of the British Naval Mission to Japan in 1921, which sold aircraft and and other technology to Japan. It was led by Lord Sempill, a Scottish aristocrat who had also been a RNAS pilot in the war (he was styled "The Master of Sempill" at the time, before he inherited his father's title). Sempill also became a willing advisor to the Japanese Navy, and a spy, who provided classified information, though again, nothing was proved at the time. He was arrested just after Pearl Harbour when he was caught on the phone to the Japanese ambassador in London. Churchill believed that Sempill was a traitor, and documents released in the 1980s confirmed this. But unlike Rutland, he had friends in high places, was protected by the "Old Boy" network, and got clean away with it, apart from being expected to withdraw from public life. Unlike Rutland, he died old, rich, and as far as we know, happy.

  2. The Drablin book is reviewed in the February 15th Wall Street Journal.