Beating Away From the Lee Shore of Jutland

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Rear Admiral James Goldrick AO, CSC RAN (Retired) commanded HMA Ships Cessnock and Sydney (twice), the multinational maritime interception force in the Persian Gulf, the Australian Defence Force Academy (twice), Border Protection Command and the Australian Defence College. He is an Adjunct Professor at UNSW@Canberra (ADFA) and in SDSC at ANU, as well as a Professorial Fellow at ANCORS at the University of Wollongong. He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University in 2015. He is a member of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal and of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal. He was a member of the Expert Panel supporting the development of the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper. He was awarded a Doctorate of Letters (honoris causa) by the University of NSW in 2006. His books include: No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters August 1914-February 1915, and, with Jack McCaffrie, Navies of South-East Asia: A Comparative Study.

The Royal Navy mourned Jutland. The legacy of the battle was, ‘never again.’ There was regret for tactical and material failures and the catastrophic losses they caused, regret for the deficiencies of reporting and communications and, above all, a regret for the absence of initiative on the part of so many who should have known better. In later years, there may well have been ‘too much Jutland’. Yet it is clear that the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 functioned in relation to the battle as a ‘learning organisation’. While there was attention to the mechanics, what may have proved most important was the focus on restoring the spirit of the tactical offensive.

The response to the Grand Fleet’s material problems was remarkable, and something of a tribute to at least one facet of Jellicoe’s leadership. However, to suggest that the command and control of the fleet moved to a looser regime, particularly after Beatty took over as C-in-C from Jellicoe in November 1916, would be to over-simplify what happened. Many practical challenges remained and had to be endured. The action seems to have confirmed that the battle fleet was too big. But, given the forces available on either side, the North Sea battle fleets would always be larger than tactically desirable. There was certainly a new emphasis on squadron and divisional tactics and a greater understanding that subordinate flag officers needed the authority to respond individually to an emerging situation. But it is notable that the drive within squadrons and divisions was to an even greater degree of coordinated manoeuvre, not less. The reason was that concentration of fire became a focus of gunnery innovation, first with two ships and then up to four as a single gunnery ‘unit’.

Night fighting was the subject of new attention, with the realisation that the uncertainty of combat in the darkness could only be mitigated by the systematic development and practice of procedures and tactics understood by all. Before Jutland, the Grand Fleet’s purely reactive attitude to action in the dark, and the doctrine and training which resulted, had been based on the assessment that a night encounter with no warning in the open sea was a practical impossibility. Arguably, however, any fleet encounter that started after noon would inevitably involve night action, particularly when it was not high summer. After June 1916, the Grand Fleet understood this.

Control and precision were emphasised in another area – reporting the enemy. By 1918, detailed analysis was being produced in the wake of each major Grand Fleet tactical exercise. This not only set out what had happened but critiqued formation commanders and individual ships. It also included an annex which listed and assessed every reporting signal – and pointed out when signals should have been sent, but were not. Keeping one’s head below the transmission parapet was no longer acceptable, particularly in a scouting unit.

However, there was more to it than greater control and precision. There was also the slow regeneration of a spirit of enterprise. There were several causes for its frequent absence at Jutland. The Navy’s culture of obedience to the senior officer present was one, particularly as the full implications of the ‘virtual unreality’ created by the assumption that radio contact equated to such presence had not been worked through. While Jellicoe must bear a considerable part of the blame, he himself was bitterly disappointed by the lack of enterprise, a disappointment that was part of his later admonition against the ‘virtual unreality’ of assuming that the admiral knew what each ship commander did: ‘Never think that the C-in-C sees what you see.’

What is notable about Jutland is the extent to which the future leadership of the navy was present at the battle. This continued well beyond the Second World War. The commander of the British and Commonwealth naval forces off Korea in 1950-51 was a midshipman at Jutland. The First Sea Lord from 1951 to 1955 was there as a Lieutenant in the Malaya. Only one First Sea Lord between 1916 and 1943 was not at Jutland (and he was commanding a light cruiser in the Harwich Force). The statistics for the other naval members of the Board of Admiralty are almost as telling. Many had their individual regrets about failures to act during the battle, while the Jutland veterans were not alone in their experience of failure and feelings of regret. A.B. Cunningham, commanding the destroyer Scorpion, was present when Rear Admiral Troubridge refused action with the battle cruiser Goeben in August 1914. An officer who was a captain in 1918 wrote that the Navy had ‘an insufficient insistence on the imperative need of really coming to grips.’ This summed up the attitude of many thoughtful officers.

The retrenchments of the 1920s were dead hands on any initiative that required financial resources. But one senses increasingly well-coordinated efforts to improve, which gained momentum as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. The influence of officers who had direct experience of their seniors’ failures was very important. The Tactical School was a key innovation. There was a healthy dialogue, including the regular publication of ‘Progress in Tactics’ with the results of exercises and trials. What also helped was a growing realisation that the Royal Navy would not necessarily enjoy technological superiority over its opponents. This placed a premium on identifying tactics which would minimise British disadvantages.

Another vital element was the selection of officers for senior seagoing rank. The reductions of peace meant the Admiralty one priceless advantage – it could be highly selective. No matter how brilliant the specialist officer, nor how significant their staff or ship service, all were placed under a microscope. The weight given to proven initiative was clearly considerable. The promotions to Vice Admiral on the active list between 1934 and 1936 show what happened. Of 15 officers, 9 had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and, of these, 3 had earned it in submarine command and 3 in destroyers. Rear Admirals of the same seniority tell a similar story – 4 submariner and 4 destroyer DSOs out of a total of 28 officers, 12 of whom had the award.

Risk taking in battle tactics was accompanied by a willingness to take risks with ships, a willingness that may have grown as the battle hardened reformers reached flag rank. The wider attitude being engendered was summed up by William Fisher’s response to Captain Philip Vian’s frank admission of fault in a berthing accident. ‘I was told to be more careful in future, but the Commander-in-Chief added a paragraph in the sense that he had liked the manner of the confession.’ Andrew Cunningham was not alone when he asserted that broken eggs are inevitable in making an omelette.

There were misdirections. Whatever the benefits of games for ship spirit and individual fitness, there were excessive claims about the relationship between sport and fighting instincts – and perhaps too much effort devoted to competitive inter-ship sport, as opposed to encouraging group activity. Safety also sometimes exerted too strong an influence. Night operations by submarines were almost non-existent and restrictions on their interaction with surface forces created tactical unrealities.

Unanimity on the subject of command and control was not complete. There was a fissure over the role of staffs. Much commentary has been devoted to the problem of over-centralisation within staffs and commanders who attempted to do too much themselves. But an equal problem, arguably one that has continually dogged the Royal Navy in the years since the Grand Fleet, was that of over-centralisation into staffs and their misemployment on nugatory work, particularly that of minding the individual business of worked up ships, rather than thinking creatively about tactics, operations and war.

Despite this, by 1939, the Royal Navy had successfully learnt most of the lessons needed to achieve effective remote coordination of operations at sea and the associated exercise of local initiative. Thus, when the three British cruisers under Commodore Henry Harwood encountered the Graf Spee off the River Plate in October 1939, the British had set the conditions for the encounter. Harwood had considered and gamed – imaginatively – the problem and knew what to do. It was a ‘damned nice thing, the nearest run thing you have ever seen in your life.’ But the Graf Spee suffered critical damage and was driven into harbour, from which she would emerge only to be scuttled. Afterwards, the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, wrote to Harwood to declare that he had set the standard for the war to come, a matter which he felt was of ‘great importance.’ Pound emphasised not only that Harwood had acted correctly, but that he would have been right to engage the Graf Spee even if his entire force was sunk.

Balance had indeed been restored, but are we balanced now?

Image: Admiral David Beatty and his secretary Paymaster Commander Frank T. Spickernell on the bridge of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron (Grand Fleet) with Captain Ernle Chatfield RN, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

3 thoughts on “Beating Away From the Lee Shore of Jutland

  1. […] Defence-in-Depth ran a feature on Jutland and the War at Sea more generally, which explored many of these themes. The contributors stressed that the relationship between naval operations in the North Sea and the broader campaign of British economic warfare can only be understood with reference to much broader questions of diplomacy and strategy, and argued that we need to incorporate economic considerations much more fully into our appreciation of British war-making as a whole. In terms of the Battle itself, a number of interesting questions were raised about command decisions and seizing the tactical initiative – particularly regarding the use of British destroyers in the Battle. The importance of a vigorous offensive was certainly taken forward by the Navy of the inter-war period, as James Goldrick examined here. […]


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