In 1797, the Minerve frigate, captain Horatio Nelson, was being pursued by two Spanish vessels. A man fell overboard, in order to save him Lieutenant Thomas Hardy and another sailor scrambled down into the jolly boat and pulled towards the drowning man. They rescued him and began rowing back, however the wind had strengthened and the Minerve was pulling away from the boat. Seeing this Nelson uttered the wonderful order.
“By God, I’ll not lose Hardy, back the mizzen topsail!”
This slowed the ship, the pursuing Spanish were amazed. They immediately suspected a trap and slowed themselves allowing Nelson and Hardy to escape.
For over two hundred years enemy nations have long been suspicious of the British, believing them to be brilliantly devious and great at deceit. Wellington would retreat on several occasions, leading his enemy into a trap. In Portugal he led the French deep into enemy territory, then when their supply lines were very stretched, and being harassed by local guerrillas, led them onto the massively defended lines of Torres Vedras, which Wellington had kept so secret that not even his own government knew about them!
Before the Second World War the German’s had an almost superstitious belief in the efficiency of the British Secret Service. However even they didn’t know how good they were, it was only after the war that it was discovered that the entire German spy network in Britain was run by the British!
However one brilliant intelligence coup occurred by accident. Churchill was very concerned about maintaining British moral, and this included food supplies. Marmalade is a staple of the British breakfast and is made from Seville oranges, from neutral Spain. So Churchill ordered the British Embassy to ensure the supply of these oranges, the Germans naturally got wind of this and wondered why they were so important. The oranges are bitter and cannot be eaten directly so the Germans suspected that there was a chemical in them of military importance. For six months several top German chemists were involved in trying to discover what Seville oranges were good for, wasting months of time!
Hence the joke, first recorded in the far East in the 1920s.
‘Why does the sun never set on the British Empire?’
‘Because God can’t trust the British in the dark.’