Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

How Jewish was Karl Dönitz’s great wartime adversary, Admiral Sir Max Horton?

Admiral Sir Max Horton (left) while serving in the Baltic.
Admiral Sir Max Horton (left) while serving in the Baltic.

Earlier this year, on the Welsh island of Anglesey, and as the Jewish News reported, a new plaque was unveiled at the foot of the statue of Admiral Sir Max Horton, who had been born on the island in 1883. The statue dated from 2019. An inscription at its base had simply recorded Horton’s name, honours and dates of birth and death.

The new plaque, incorporating a Star of David, and paid for by the American historian and philanthropist Jerry Klinger, of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, now announces to the world that Horton was “of Jewish heritage.” It was commissioned on the initiative of the Hackney branch of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) and its indefatigable archivist, Martin Sugarman.[1]

I want to say at once that I have nothing but admiration for AJEX and for its work in bringing to the attention of the world the Jewish contribution to the defence of the British Isles. My concern is that in the case of Max Horton these efforts might have been misdirected.

Of Max Horton’s part in the development of British submarine warfare and in winning the Battle of the Atlantic against the Nazi U-boat menace in World War Two there can be no doubt. A brilliant and much-decorated submarine commander, Horton was promoted to the rank of Admiral in 1943, when he was appointed “Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches.” Ruthless and with boundless energy, Horton had an uncanny knack of reading the mind of his Nazi adversary, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, whose U-boat war against merchant shipping threatened to starve Britain into surrender. That this never happened was due – in very substantial measure – to Horton’s naval genius.

But how “Jewish” was he?

Horton was the second son of stockbroker Robert Joseph Angel Horton and his wife, Esther Maud Goldsmid, the daughter of William Goldsmid, a fellow stockbroker and a member of the celebrated Anglo-Jewish Goldsmid family. Whether Esther was herself halachically Jewish I have been unable to fully determine, but I am quite prepared to believe that she was. If so, so was Horton of course!

No matter. Throughout his long life Max Horton appears to have had no contact whatever with or even interest in the wider Anglo-Jewish community. The entry for him in the Dictionary of National Biography, written by his naval colleague the late Rear Admiral William Scott Chalmers, has this to say about Horton’s religious beliefs:

Part Jewish, he was a deeply religious man who had leanings towards, but did not join, the Roman Catholic church. He was a perfectionist, completely repudiating half-measures, and this perhaps explains a great devotion to St Theresa of Lisieux which would have surprised his shipmates had they known of it.[2]

Chalmers’ entry for Horton also makes the astonishing claim that when he died (1951) Horton “was accorded a state funeral in Liverpool Cathedral.” His Christian funeral was certainly very well attended (both King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were ‘represented’).  But it was not a “state” funeral. Be that as it may, a report in the Liverpool Echo for 7 August 1951 tells us that Horton had been cremated, and that it was his ashes, placed within a coffin atop a gun-carriage, that were to be interred in the cathedral, specifically “in a niche in the south-east transept.”

It’s worth remembering that during Horton’s lifetime there were examples of Jews attaining high rank in the armed forces of the UK and its allies whilst remaining firmly rooted within their Jewish heritage, and not being afraid to publicly acknowledge the fact. A case in point is that of Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a grandson of Samuel Montagu (founder of the Federation of Synagogues). Ewen Montagu’s glittering career as a naval intelligence officer during the Second World War culminated in “Operation Mincemeat” (1943), when Nazi Germany was comprehensively deceived into believing that there would be an allied invasion from North Africa into Greece, whereas in reality the allied landings took place in Sicily.  Montagu never lost sight of his Jewish identity. Indeed he held high office in the United Synagogue, of which he served as President 1954-62.

I am not for one moment asserting that Admiral Max Horton’s Jewish roots meant absolutely nothing to him. The truth is that we shall probably never know. But one has to ask what communal benefit is bestowed by identifying him as “of Jewish heritage” when he had a secret affinity to Christianity, a Christian funeral, and a Christian resting place for his remains?

[1] https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/jewish-war-heros-heritage-is-finally-set-in-stone/

[2] https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34001

About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist
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