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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Jutland's Shadow Over the Royal Navy

Selections from:  "Emerging from the Shadow of Jutland,"  Corbett Paper #18 
Rear Admiral James Goldrick, Royal Australian Navy, Ret.

Queen Mary Exploding at Jutland

The Royal Navy mourned over Jutland. Whatever the pride felt from individual actions during the engagements, or from the realization that the Grand Fleet’s strategic advantage had been fully confirmed through its effective possession of the North Sea after the enemy had fled, at every level 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, an even deeper regret for the absence of enterprise and initiative on the part of so many who should have known better. . .it is also clear that the Royal Navy between 1916 and 1939 functioned in relation to the battle as a "learning organization’"and consciously so. While there was attention to the mechanics, what may have proved even more important—and much more valuable between 1939 and 1945—was the accompanying focus on restoring the spirit of the tactical offensive.

To suggest that the command and control of the fleet moved to a looser and more flexible regime, particularly after Beatty took over as C-in-C from Jellicoe in November 1916, would be to over-simplify what happened. Many of the practical problems remained and had to be endured. The action seems to have confirmed that the battle fleet was too big—Jellicoe himself had decided that 16 units was the maximum practicable for one man to command.  A 24-ship line six miles long was certainly too extended for the limited visibility of the North Sea and not much better elsewhere. But, given the forces available on either side, the battle fleets of the First World War would always be larger than tactically desirable because a smaller formation was always at risk of being overwhelmed. Arguably, the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922 may have been settled in part by recognition of the ideal size for a battle fleet.

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 maneuver, not less. The reason for this was that concentration of fire became the new focus of gunnery innovation, first with two ships and then with up to four as a single gunnery "unit." Much effort was devoted to developing the new techniques and proving both the system and the required components of spotting, communications (special wireless sets were rapidly produced and distributed to the capital ships) and information exchange to allow effective control of fire.

Night fighting was the subject of new attention, with the realization that the uncertainty of combat in the darkness could only be mitigated by the systematic development and equally systematic practice of procedures and tactics that were 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. This was because detection and counter-detection ranges were severely limited, even on the clearest of moonlit nights. It had been demonstrated time and again during the prewar Grand Maneuvers that torpedo craft dispatched to attack the opposition at night rarely succeeded in finding them.  At least part of the German interest and expertise in night fighting derived from their earlier expectation that they would be fighting defensively in the Heligoland Bight, with limited sea room and a very clear idea of their own position—as well as that of other friendly forces. However, given the extent to which Jellicoe had worked out the realities of a likely encounter with the High Seas Fleet in the conditions which prevailed in the North Sea and the speed-time-distance factors involved, it is surprising that he and others had not also realized before Jutland that a major 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.

However, there was more to this process than greater control and precision. There was also the slow regeneration of a spirit of enterprise. There were several causes for its frequent absence on 31 May and 1 June. 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. Nevertheless, Jellicoe must bear a considerable part of the blame for his subordinate’s apparent inability to exercise their initiative. Practically every piece of direction, instruction, and advice that he had issued as C-in-C between 1914 and 1916 was founded in good sense and a clear-eyed recognition of the operational realities, but it is undeniable that much was written in a way that could only dampen enthusiasm and erode élan.

HMS Warspite After the Battle

Some of the Jutland veterans, such as Tovey of the Onslow, earned immediate recognition for their bravery, but there were many others—only two First Sea Lords between 1916 and 1943 were not at Jutland (and one, Roger Backhouse, 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—Guy Royle, later to serve as Fifth Sea Lord and then head the Royal Australian Navy, always felt that he should have engaged the target that he saw at night from the control position of the battleship Marlborough rather than seeking permission from his captain. The latter assumed that the ship looming up in the darkness was friendly—but it was a German battle cruiser.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew Gordon’s “Rules of the Game” brilliantly sets out how that “loss of enterprise” mentioned above occurred, showing how the long peace of the 19th Century after Trafalgar eroded the fighting spirit of the Royal Navy. “Rules” is one of only a handful of books which everyone should read, whether or not they have any interest in maritime history.