1918 to 1919 in command of HMS Cossack
Ralph Kerr was born on 16 August, 1891, the youngest son of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Russell Kerr, Kt., D.L., J.P., and Lady Kerr of Newnham on Severn, Gloucestershire.
He entered the Royal Navy as a Cadet on 15 May 1904. His older brother William chose a commission in the Army. Sadly William was killed whilst on service in 1915. Promotion to the rank of Lieutenant came on 28 February 1914. He spent the majority of the First World War aboard H.M.S. Benbow, flagship of Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. In 1918 he took command of the destroyer H.M.S. Cossack (fourth of that name). Most of his naval career revolved around destroyers.
Having survived the First World War, he was married to Margaret Augusta Kerr on St. Valentine's Day, 1920. Together they had two children Russell and Jane. The family lived in St. John's Wood, London.
On 30 June 1927 Kerr was promoted to Commander. December of the following year saw him take command of the destroyer H.M.S. Windsor. He retained this command until August 1929, when he took command of the destroyer H.M.S. Thruster. He held this position until February 1931. He returned to sea a year later in February 1932, in command of the destroyer H.M.S. Decoy.
Kerr was promoted to Captain on 30 June 1935. The following month saw him attend a tactical course in Portsmouth. He returned to sea on 6 September 1935 as Flotilla Leader and Captain (D) of the 21st Destroyer Flotilla. A tried and true destroyer man, Kerr immediately made a favourable impression. On leaving this appointment on 22 May 1936, Admiral Thomson commented, "A very capable Captain (D) who has trained his Flotilla well. An officer probably much better suited to the practical side of naval life rather than to Staff duties. A strong personality with definite powers of command and a very good seaman. Most loyal and is very thorough in the carrying out of his duties. Social qualities good. Physically fit and has good powers of endurance."
Two months passed before Kerr took up his next appointment, this time as Senior Officer, Reserve Fleet in the First World War vintage 4,000 ton cruiser H.M.S. Caledon. He remained in Caledon until 3 November 1936, at which time he transferred to the aging cruiser H.M.S. Colombo. On joining Colombo he took on the additional appointment of Chief Staff Officer to the Rear-Admiral of the 10th Cruiser Squadron. During this period (April to July 1937) Kerr was involved in preparations for the Coronation review. Kerr remained with the 10th Cruiser Squadron for nearly a year. Vice-Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens summarised his work thus: "A very keen zealous officer who has done well as Senior Officer Reserve Fleet. Has plenty of character and drive and is mentally alert. A good seaman and a sound administrator. Very loyal, while ambitious to do well. Good social qualities. Keeps fit."
Kerr was due to be appointed as Commander of the Flotilla Leader H.M.S. Duncan and Captain (D) of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, but this appointment ended up being cancelled. Instead, Kerr attended a training course, his first since his promotion to Captain. He attended the four month War Course at Greenwich. By this point in time, Kerr appears to have realised that he needed to expand his training and experience beyond destroyers. As a result of this, he put his all into the training course. Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Bailey commented on him thus: "Capacity: 16/30 Very sound; a limited outlook due to previous lack of staff training. Power of Expression: Vocal 7/10 Speaks clearly and to the point and does not hesitate to express views. Writing 7/10 Good and improving. Ability in supporting opinions in debate: 10/15 Supports his views with good arguments and emphatically. Application: 8/10 Has worked with determination to extract full value from the course and has obviously welcomed the opportunity. Remarks (Soundness 20/25) Appears to have suffered from the cramping effects of continuous specialised service and realises it. Recommended for I.D.C. Total 68/100"
Kerr's potential was recognised and he was recommended for the Imperial Defence College. Clearly, with broadened experience, he would be a high value asset to the Royal Navy. Unfortunately for Kerr, not much would change- he returned to destroyer service following the War Course. He assumed command of the Flotilla Leader H.M.S. Hardy as Captain (D) of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla. He served in Hardy until 30 July 1939. During his time in Hardy he worked under the flag of Vice-Admiral John Tovey. Tovey, who would later be Commander, Home Fleet during the Bismarck pursuit, had an excellent opinion on Kerr. In May 1939 Tovey wrote: "An experienced and exceptionally able Destroyer Officer. Possesses a great deal of common sense. A strong personality and a good leader. He has trained his Flotilla to a high degree of efficiency and he and they can always be thoroughly relied on. He is an expert at A/S work. He has a sound knowledge of tactics and strategy. I would always be glad to have him with me in battle. He expresses himself forcibly and clearly both verbally and in writing. Never hesitates to give his own opinion. Keeps himself fit and an excellent Fotilla mate." Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean concurred
On 30 July 1939, Kerr assumed command of the 15th Destroyer Flotilla, again as Captain (D). Initially he commanded the Flotilla from H.M.S. Broke, a 1400 ton destroyer of 1920 vintage. He transferred command to the shore establishment H.M.S. Cochrane, Rosyth on 30 August 1939. The Second World War commenced just days later.
On 16 October 1939, Kerr's responsibilities increased as he joined the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Rosyth and transferred command to the Rosyth Destroyer Force. He remained based at H.M.S. Cochrane throughout this timeframe. He was awarded the C.B.E. during the King's birthday Honours of 1940. He remained with the Rosyth Destroyer Force until 24 January 1940.
Captain Kerr's service with the Rosyth Destroyer Force lasted until 25 January 1941. His final recorded report for this assignment was written by Vice-Admiral Charles Ramsey who stated: "An outstanding officer in every way. Clear headed, forthright, loyal and in every way an excellent officer to deal with. Fit and good social qualities. Has an excellent manner in dealing with both his seniors and juniors; he has the happy gift of being able to admonish these latter without leaving a sting. To my surprise I found he was good on paper. I have known him before as an excellent destroyer officer and did not suspect this latter accomplishment."
On 15 February 1941, a fortnight after leaving the Rosyth Destroyers he took command of the battle cruiser H.M.S. Hood, then undergoing a refit at Rosyth. He would be her final Captain. We can only speculate how, after such a long period of service in destroyers, Kerr felt as he took command of the Royal Navy's largest warship. Not doubt there was a degree of trepidation, but Kerr had proven time and again that he was more than capable of meeting any new challenge.
His time as Flag Captain in Hood was short (just over three months), but it would prove to be a busy time. Her refit was complete by mid March 1941. From this point onward, life aboard Hood was dominated by gunnery exercises and North Atlantic sea patrols (particularly off Iceland).
He went down with his ship when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck on 24th May 1941. He made no attempt to leave the sinking vessel, preferring to remain at his station alongside Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland. Kerr was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches. He was 49 years old at the time of his loss.
Sadly, tragedy would once again strike the Kerr family just under four years later, when his son, Russell, a Captain in the Royal Artillery and a tank commander, was lost in action in Burma.
1918 to 1919 in command of HMS Cossack