John Barnes, Historian

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© John Barnes 2016

Beatty and Jutland

29 May 2016

By way of Prologue

“There can be few if any battles fought on land, at sea or latterly in the air which have produced so much controversy and have been re-fought so often on paper.1 Roskill’s introductory words to his account of Beatty’s part in the battle of Jutland recall not only the controversy which developed between partisans of Beatty and Jellicoe after the war but a lengthy historiography in which salvoes are still being exchanged. A major problem with the way in which the history of the battle has been written is to be found in the prevailing tendency to pit Beatty against Jellicoe, and vice versa, as if support for the one necessarily involves denigration of the other. Indeed the polarisation of opinion is such that the protagonists far too often content themselves with passing judgement on the decisions made rather than seeking explanations for them. There is a reluctance to accept that all concerned were having to learn what modern naval warfare was about and the limitations of their equipment. They had to do so when action was infrequent and conducted at a far greater range than anyone had anticipated before the war. They also needed a clear day, but, as Peter Chalmers recalled the “visibility, as it happened, was extremely patchy. It was one of those typical North Sea summer days with a thin white mist varying in intensity and having too much humidity for the sun to break up.”2

Rear Admiral W.S. Chalmers was on the bridge with Beatty at Jutland. His duty was to keep the plot and to advise Beatty on what they knew of the enemy in relation to their own forces. After the war he served on the directing staff of the Royal Naval Staff College, had a further spell at the Royal Naval War College from 1932-34, and from 1936 until 1938 was Director of the Royal Naval Staff College. He was familiar with the demonstrations of the battle given to courses seeking to learn its lessons and with the views of the various senior commanders who had taken part and who were invited to comment on them. He had words of wise advice to the armchair historian: “it is too easy to criticise leaders when sitting in comfort with all the facts available and explanatory diagrams at hand for reference. One is apt to forget the real conditions which existed at the time, when all that could be seen were often the outlines of a few ships, vanishing before it was possible to distinguish friend from foe. A very effective method of bringing officers back to reality during demonstrations at the Staff College and tactical School was for the instructor to superimpose a circle of visibility on the diagram under discussion and say: ‘That was all the Admiral could see at the time – now what would you have done?’”3 There is a pardonable degree of exaggeration here, since for the most part the problem was less identifying friend from foe than sighting the enemy and obtaining a satisfactory range. Nevertheless placing a ring around the flagship in question to demonstrate the limits of what could be seen was an illuminating, and on occasion startling process. But it is even more important to know what information was available to the flag officer in question. Jellicoe was very clear about that when discussing what he knew, or could reasonably infer, before he took his deployment decision. There was often rather less information to plot than one might suppose. Criticism is often made of the Battle Cruiser Fleet, Goodenough excepted,4 for its failure to keep up a steady flow of information to the Commander-in-Chief. Whether there was good reason for that will need discussion, but, if there was neglect of that task, the failure was all pervasive in the Grand Fleet also.

For a number of reasons, the information that did get through was difficult to reconcile, hence trust. Both the ships reporting and those to whom they reported were reliant on dead reckoning. Without visual contact it was impossible to know the cumulative error this created. The perfect example, as will be seen later, was Jellicoe’s sighting of Beatty about 1800 hours on 31 May. As he wrote in his despatch, “It was apparent on meeting that the reckoning of the battle cruiser fleet was about twelve miles to the eastward of ‘Iron Duke’s’ reckoning. In consequence of this the enemy were sighted on the starboard bow instead of ahead, and some twenty minutes earlier than was anticipated.” It was not unreasonable for Jellicoe to make the assumption that the error was entirely down to Lion – she had after all been twisting and turning in battle – but it transpired subsequently that she was only some 6 ¾ miles west of her real position and that Iron Duke was some 4 miles to the south-eastward of where she thought she was. Equally bewildering, but less understandable, there was difficulty in reconciling the positions given by the same reporting ship. When her positions were plotted they suggested, for example, that Southampton was achieving speeds well in excess of her capability. Nor was there any synchronisation between the time kept in the Battle Cruiser Fleet and that in the Iron Duke. Several wireless signals are listed as having been received in Jellicoe’s flagship before they were sent by ships in the BCF, which almost certainly indicates that the latter was operating some minutes in advance of the time kept in the Grand Fleet. Almost certainly, however, there were discrepancies also not only between the times kept in the various squadrons but in different ships within the same squadron and even within individual ships. Andrew Gordon has drawn attention to the inevitable problems posed by these discrepancies in reckoning and time to the historian reconstructing the battle,5 but they were not without impact on the way it was conducted at the time.

More controversially Gordon also suggests that, as far as the Battle Fleets were concerned, what took place was little more than a skirmish, in fact two. From the moment that it started its deployment at 1815, nobody in the Grand Fleet seems to have sighted more than four or five of the High Sea Fleet, and then, for the most part, only indistinctly. If we can trust Marlborough’s timing, she was the first British battleship to fire at 1817. By 1830, all but the van had opened fire. Many were firing at a disabled German cruiser that lay between the lines for want of a better target. Perhaps a dozen were firing at the enemy battleships, which were in no position to fire back, other than blindly. At about 1835 the High Sea Fleet seemed to disappear into the mist; and by 1845 at the latest firing had petered out. But for Scheer’s decision to reverse his course at 1855, there might not have been a second skirmish that night. It lasted only a few minutes before Scheer again turned away, using his battle cruisers and destroyers to cover his retreat. At that point Jellicoe tuned his fleet away from the impending torpedo attack and in effect brought the battle to a close. There were to be further clashes, but nothing resembling a general engagement. Neither Jellicoe nor Beatty had any intention of fighting a night action, and the High Sea Fleet managed to make good its escape, crossing to the rear of the Grand Fleet. A series of encounters between the escaping Germans and the British destroyers stationed astern of the British Fleet marked their passage, but were not reported to Jellicoe. In the morning he swept the battlefield in search of the enemy, but they had gone.

Jutland has mesmerised successive generations of naval historians because it was both the first and the last clash of the dreadnoughts, but Gordon is right to conclude that, as far as the British battle fleet is concerned, it “hardly justifies the term ‘battle’…. Had another fleet encounter taken place, in Jellicoe’s time or in Beatty’s, it is unlikely that anyone would care much who ‘won’ Jutland. The imperative to attach to it the label of ‘victory’ – and even to describe it as a great battle – derives at least in part from its being the only meeting of the two fleets in the entire war.”6 However, the absence of any further encounter left it wide open to dispute whether a more complete victory might have altered the course of the war. The differences of view over the right answer to that question were to play a significant part in generating arguments about Jutland; and they fed into an ongoing debate, with which Beatty was familiar,7 about the objects of naval strategy and the importance of battle.

The major focus in this book is on Beatty rather than Jellicoe, in large part because in the last half century most accounts of the battle have been marred by a questionable animus towards his personality. That has been allowed to shape judgements on the way in which he conducted the action. Despite the protests of those who knew him well, he has been portrayed as impetuous, displaying much of the recklessness as well as the courage that characterised the leadership of the Royalist cavalry general, Prince Rupert. He has also been described as lacking in technical knowledge and professionalism. The caricature does not withstand close examination. Its widespread acceptance seems to be down in large measure to distaste for the way in which he sought to manipulate accounts of the battle from his vantage point as First Sea Lord after the war. That, it is assumed, is because he had something to hide. Further assumptions follow: he was evidently conscious that he had made tactical errors and that there were failings in the gunnery of the battle cruisers. That must be what he was seeking to conceal. One recent author has gone much further, accusing him of something much more serious, that he was not content with trying to change the accounts of the battle provided in what became known as the Harper Record and in the official history, but that he manipulated the raw material from which those histories were compiled.8 Another critic, Dr John Brooks is content with charging that he had already misrepresented his conduct of the action in his published Despatch and that he had therefore to seek to bring later accounts into accord with what he had written. That the misrepresentation was deliberate can be seen, Brooks suggests, by contrasting what is said in the Despatch with the Narrative kept in his personal papers.9 The paradox left unexplored by those making such charges is exemplified by the availability in Beatty’s own papers not simply of the Narrative, but of a bulky file covering his dealings with Captain Harper. Much of the documentation so carefully preserved by Harper himself are copies of the documents Beatty kept. Had he wished to mislead posterity, he would surely have given instructions that this material and much else in the Admiralty archives should be destroyed. It is often noted that the evidence of a cover-up can be more damaging than the substance of what is being concealed, but it would be unusual, to say the least, for the perpetrator to fully document his activities and leave those documents on record for historians to study.

The changes that Beatty sought initially were not extensive and seem largely to have been concerned with minimising the part played by the battle fleet.10 Whatever his motive, the changes sought scarcely bear out Gordon’s suggestion, made in a hostile account of Beatty’s actions, that he was “unaccustomed to public criticism” and concerned that “that the Harper Record failed to endorse in every respect the battle cruisers’ Jutland folklore.”11 However Gordon is less concerned with these early exchanges than with a later row over the failure of the 5th Battle Squadron to turn with the battlecruisers at the very outset of the action, and with what he clearly believes to be the unfair treatment of its commander, Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas by Beatty and the “Beatty-ites”. 12 Keith Yates is perhaps more typical of recent views when he writes that from February 1920, “there is no doubt that Beatty tried to use his influential position to impose his view of the battle on Harper and the Board of Admiralty, to manipulate the Record to show the Battle Cruiser Fleet in a more favourable light, and to minimise the role of the battle fleet.”13 It would be fairer to say that Beatty had the support of major players on the Board in trying to impose his (and their) view of the battle and to minimise the role of the battle fleet. It is far less clear that the other changes he was seeking were designed to show the Battle Cruiser Fleet in a more favourable light: on the point most frequently cited, and where he was clearly in the wrong – the question of the 32 point turn made by Lion at about 1854 – he was clearing his own yardarm, but his motive for doing so is far from obvious.14 In his biography of Beatty, Stephen Roskill accepts most of the charges made, although noting that it is clear, not least from Jellicoe’s correspondence with one of Harper’s team,15 that he too was attempting to influence official accounts of the battle. He portrays Beatty as attempting to rectify a perceived bias in favour of Jellicoe in successive official accounts, thinks that he was ill-advised to do so and that the influence he sought to exert was disproportionate. However, whether Beatty was right or wrong in what he said, Roskill could find no deliberate and conscious attempt to falsify the evidence beyond one ill-advised attempt to validate a diagram by adding his signature. 16 He takes the point that Beatty carefully preserved the evidence of what others take to be his ‘wrong-doing’, which destroys any notion that he wished permanently to suppress his part in the controversy. “Thus although Beatty must stand convicted of highly injudicious, even reprehensible, interference in the preparation of the various accounts of the battle, a generous verdict would be to acquit him of the most damaging charges made against him by Harper, Frewen and others in the opposite camp.”17 The verdict is fair, but does not really provide a satisfactory explanation of what Beatty thought he was doing.

Although Dr James Yates cannot altogether break free of the now widespread belief that Beatty was manipulating the record to the benefit of his own reputation at the expense of Jellicoe’s, he offers an alternative explanation: “to legitimise his favourable idea of his own performance and the principles he wished to see adopted by the Fleet, Beatty knew that there had to be an account that endorsed his views, which was also endorsed by the Admiralty and which was generally accepted as accurate.”18 While that explanation is not beyond challenge, it makes far better sense than the charge that he was out to falsify history, and is an explanation compatible with the maintenance of a file of his own dealings with Harper. However, it leads Yates into accepting another widespread charge against Beatty, that he selected the Dewar brothers to write the Naval Staff Appreciation of the battle, knowing them to be his partisans. Roskill implied as much when suggesting that the commissioning of the Staff Appreciation was Beatty’s riposte to a correspondence which the First Lord, Walter Long, was conducting with a strong Jellicoe partisan, Moreton Frewen, whose nephew had been part of Harper’s team. Not only was this pure supposition on Roskill’s part, but, if the work was already under way by the time Brock wrote a minute to the Dewars on 15 November 1920,19 the dates do not support his argument.

Kenneth Dewar gave a different account of its origins, which went unchallenged by those who had been involved and who knew the truth. He recalls that the request had come from the Naval Staff College and that his brother Captain A.C. Dewar was asked to undertake the task by the DTSD, Captain Ellerton.20 Alfred Dewar was the obvious choice for the job since he headed the Historical Section and was already engaged on preparing a series of Naval Staff Monographs (Historical) for confidential issue. The first of these was published in November 1920. Since he was not a gunnery specialist, he suggested recruiting his brother, who was and was then on half pay and contemplating retirement.21 Kenneth Dewar claims to have had only one interview with Beatty, probably at the outset, “when I asked him whether the appreciation was to be confined to a plain narrative or to include comments on tactics and command. He replied that an accurate and intelligible account was the main thing, but that we should endeavour to bring out its lessons.”22 Both he and his brother were adamant that “neither Lord Beatty nor anyone else attempted, either directly or indirectly, to influence [the authors’] work…” 23

Kenneth Dewar would not have been an easy man to influence. In a brief account of his life, James Goldrick cites a well-informed reviewer of Dewar’s autobiography to the effect that he “was, without any doubt, a clear and original thinker. He also had the defects of these qualities. Amongst others a contemptuous attitude towards anything with which he disagreed, a certain exudation of omniscience in argument, and a growing intolerance.”24 However, Beatty would have had no need even to make the attempt. Kenneth Dewar had been Richmond’s lieutenant before the war in the formation of the Naval Society and The Naval Review, and he was a good deal more radical than Beatty in his belief in decentralisation and divided tactics. While on the staff at the War College he had given a great deal of time to the study of the naval battles of the past and had concluded: “Centralised command with its rigid rules and formations must be replaced by trained initiative and subordinate leaders must adopt a variety of formations each suited to the immediate situation…. In peace v exercises, an Admiral may accustom himself to the direction of a large fleet by signal, but the brutal realism of shell and torpedo fire will soon blow away in smoke all such ideas. In the stress and strain of battle, he will be incapable of visualising the rapidly changing situations which confront his subordinates in different parts of the battlefield.”25

Gordon is spot-on when he notes that the Dewars, “at least in their own estimation, belonged to a new Shining Path of naval intellectuals”.26 Both were part of that loose circle of reformers, dubbed the “Young Turks”, who took their inspiration from naval history. They were convinced that, despite the most recent advances in technology, lessons drawn from naval history were still valid. As one of their number, Commander Carlyon Bellairs M.P., argued in The Battle of Jutland (1920): “While the mind was absorbed in material it could not but be impressed with the magnitude of the difference between the guns, the hulls, the methods of communication and the motive power of Nelson’s ships and those of the Grand Fleet, and was tempted, or one might say forced, to reject the history of the past as having no bearings on the present or the future…. The development of aircraft, the submarine and the torpedo seemed even more to complete the discomfiture of the historical, or as it was called in derision, the theoretical school. Yet the principles of war are as unchanging as the laws of motion, and it is only their application that varies with the development of the material. That was why Napoleon advised soldiers to study the campaigns of the greatest of Greek, Roman and Carthaginian generals…. In the practice of a profession such as the navy, a man must be a student all his days if he is to get out of the ordered grooves of that profession.”27

Richmond, a serving officer and naval historian of note, was their mentor, and as one of Beatty’s captains in the Grand Fleet, not only appreciative of Beatty’s qualities as a commander but of his style of command. In March 1917 Beatty, four months into his appointment as Commander-in-Chief, issued new Battle Instructions, which Richmond thought showed “a most marked advance in tactical thought over those of Jellicoe. The extremely mathematical principles, culmination in a battle plan on an established plan, disappear, thank goodness, and in their place we have a clear, short exposition of principles, marked by a high degree of courage and preparedness to accept risks. If such orders had been in existence on May 31 last year, and officers had thoroughly imbibed the spirit of them & acted upon them, I make small doubt that the High Sea Fleet would have been destroyed. It is of course only just to add that these orders may in part be the outcome of the experience of that battle; but how they are so only Beatty himself could say. My impression is, however, that they represent views that he held long before the battle. The orders give me a great feeling of confidence, which Jellicoe’s abstruse, long-winded, mechanical order did not. Everything at last is tending in the direction of decentralisation, & in this lies the hope for the future.”28

It is only fair to add that Jellicoe was far from averse to learning lessons from the battle. He devised exercises, undertaken on 14 July 1916, which convinced him of the desirability, especially in low visibility, of developing some method of leading the line of battle into effective range of the enemy. The exercises were intended to test some of the lessons Jellicoe had drawn. In these conditions the battle line was to be formed in echelon of squadrons or divisions with the van pressing on the enemy van, while the centre, and especially the rear, was to keep at a greater range from the enemy so as to occupy a better defensive position against torpedo attack. The van divisions would be the 5th Battle Squadron and 1st Battle Squadron, which were well suited to the task because of their excess of speed over the High Sea Fleet. The disposition of squadrons in echelon or on a line of bearing was to be practised during the exercises, as it gave a more flexible line, conferred greater independence on flag officers, and was better suited than the single line for dealing with the retiring tactics adopted by the enemy on 31 May. These exercises were followed two months later by a revised set of Battle Orders. He also reintroduced the signal, in use before the war but subsequently dropped from the signal book, which would permit him to deploy on a centre column as an unequal speed manoeuvre. These were important changes, and there were more to follow, suggesting a genuine advance in Jellicoe’s thinking, but his overall conception of the battle that he wished to fight and the degree of control he would exercise underwent no radical shift.29 It was left for Beatty to find a better balance between Jellicoe’s strategic caution, which he shared, and the more robust tactical doctrine which he favoured; and Gordon is evidently of the opinion that he succeeded in doing so.30

Given that it was the contrast between the personalities of the Admirals involved and between the respective battle orders issued by Beatty and Jellicoe which had led Gordon “into the much larger fields of the leadership mores of the late Victorian navy and of the early career conditioning of the future admirals of the Grand Fleet”,31 it is unfortunate that he pays rather less attention to Beatty as a challenger to the prevailing organisational culture in the pre-1914 Navy than his subsequent importance would warrant. One possible explanation is that he came to think of Beatty as a “bounder” who had scapegoated the commanding officer of the 5th Battle Squadron32 for some of his own mistakes. He is scathing, and arguably less than just, about Beatty’s conduct after the war in regard to the various accounts of Jutland.33 However it is possible that he assumes we know more of Beatty than is in fact the case. He concentrates on Evan-Thomas, “who may be taken as broadly representative of the ‘Jellicoe group’ and of whom (unlike Beatty) comparatively little has hitherto been known”34. Stephen Roskill’s biography is given great weight, although that is surprisingly thin on the sources of Beatty’s thinking and open to question where judgments on character are concerned. Gordon does not seek to go beyond Roskill in probing where Beatty’s thinking originated. His main interest is in one aspect of the wider debate between the historical and materialist schools, the conflict between organisation and doctrine. Jellicoe epitomised the dominant school of thought which believed in centralisation and control: Beatty belonged with the younger men who valued principles and doctrine. “Jellicoe’s main fault,” Gordon concludes, “was that ‘control’ was a contract he tried to make with fate; he feared losing it, sublimated the possibility that he might do so, and imposed a doctrinal regime which seemingly presumed to govern the very nature of warfare. “35 Gordon provides us with a thoroughly original and quite magnificent account of the organisational culture of the late Victorian and Edwardian Navy and of those who sought in vain to promote doctrine in its stead. However, his penultimate chapter, “Dirty Work Somewhere”, which deals with the efforts made by Beatty and his colleagues to re-write the official record of the battle, is a disappointment. He is content to assume that Beatty was concerned only with his own reputation and does not look to bring out all that was at stake in the struggle to shape professional and public perception of the battle of Jutland.

That is odd because he is clear nevertheless that historians have missed the fundamental point about the post-war Jutland controversy, “that the two sides were resting their respective cases on incompatible doctrinal manifestoes”. He contrasts a number of statements relating to the failure of Evan-Thomas to conform to Beatty’s turn SSE at 1432 on 31 May to bring out his point. Since the arguments will recur when the episode is discussed in context, it is sufficient to note here Gordon’s conclusion that “the system” was wrong and the “Beattyites…. were overwhelmingly in the right.”36 It was the “irrefutable failure of ‘our system’ at Jutland which gave the waiting radicals, from Beatty down the moral authority (and career security) to urge their doctrinal views on the fleet”37 and by the time the Second World War came the navy was dominated by Battle Cruiser Fleet values. Gordon draws the reader’s attention to the inter-war development of a properly equipped plotting organisation and the introduction of the Admiralty Fire Control Table Mark I, developments which certainly facilitated manoeuvre and divisional tactics, but did not make them inevitable. In the late 1930s there were still centralisers fighting a rearguard action against the prevailing trend in doctrine, but the 1939 Fighting Instructions were rooted in Beatty’s GFBIs and the empirical lessons that had been drawn from the First World War.38

Richmond’s growing appreciation of Beatty was based on wide-ranging talks that the two had in 1917. Impressed with his “breadth of view & understanding” on the question of co-operation between the services, he found it “refreshing to find a naval officer who sees so much beyond his own arm” and noted that they “confirmed my opinion that in Beatty we have a man with the makings of a real statesman.” 39 Churchill, who had appointed Beatty as his Naval Secretary in 1911, took the same view. Well aware of the challenge the historical school posed to the ‘materialists’, he noted that Beatty “viewed questions of naval strategy and tactics in a very different light from the average naval officer…. He was no mere instrumentalist. He did not think of materiel as an end in itself but only as a means. He thought of war problems in their unity by land, sea and air. His mind had been rendered quick and supple by the situations of polo and the hunting field, and enriched by varied experiences against the enemy on Nile gunboats and ashore. It was with equal pleasure and profit that I discussed with him our naval problem, now from this angle, now from that; and I was increasingly struck with the shrewd and profound sagacity of his comments expressed in language singularly free from technical jargon.

"I had no doubt whatever when the command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron fell vacant in the spring of 1913, in appointing him over the heads of all to this incomparable command, the nucleus as it proved to be of the Battle Cruiser Fleet - the strategic cavalry of the Royal Navy, that supreme combination of speed and power to which the thoughts of the Admiralty were continuously directed. And when two years later (February 3, 1915) I visited him on board the Lion, with the scars of victorious battle fresh upon her from the action of the Dogger Bank, I heard from his Captains and Admirals the expression of their respectful but intense enthusiasm for their leader. Well do I remember how, as I was leaving the ship, the usually imperturbable Admiral Pakenham caught me by the sleeve, ‘First Lord, I wish to speak to you in private,’ and the intense conviction in his voice as he said, ‘Nelson has come again.’ These words often recurred to my mind.”40

These are weighty opinions, which make it all the more surprising that the recent tide of historical opinion has run so strongly against Beatty. Max Hastings put it con brio, when reviewing Robert Massie’s Castles of Steel 41in the Daily Telegraph: “As in most modern studies, Beatty emerges as villain, or rather chief bungler, of the piece. It is an oddity that the three most famous sailors in recent British history - Nelson, Beatty and Mountbatten - were all terrific cads on shore. Only in Nelson's case, however, did professional genius match popinjay conceit…. Social and professional alpinism, matched by skilful self-publicity and undoubted dash and courage, brought Beatty command of the battle-cruiser squadron in the North Sea. His eagerness to close with the enemy impressed his peers and delighted the press. But Beatty fatally lacked the brains and professional diligence which were necessary if his ships were to secure success when they engaged the Germans. The battle cruisers suffered design flaws, which were not Beatty's fault. Their gunnery was inferior to that of the enemy, which was. His weakness for toadies caused him to retain his flag-lieutenant Ralph Seymour throughout the war, despite overwhelming evidence of Seymour's incompetence, which caused disastrous signalling errors in action. ‘He lost three battles for me,’ Beatty avowed rather late in the day42, after the war was over. John Jellicoe, C-in-C of the Grand Fleet, was a far more meticulous officer than Beatty, but no better at encouraging initiative among his subordinates. Again and again, above all at the Battle of Jutland, opportunities were lost because squadron and flotilla commanders feared to think for themselves. … Beatty the super-cad eventually supplanted Jellicoe as C-in-C of the Grand Fleet, and came out of the war with an earldom against Jellicoe's mere viscountcy. Yet Beatty paid a price for all his intriguing, and for his rich wife. Some nights with Ethel, he complained, were "worse than Jutland". Served him right.”43 Hastings makes a point of contrasting what he has learnt from Andrew Gordon’s “scholarly explanation of why the leaders of the 1914 Royal Navy were such limited men, uneasy in delegation and almost bereft of personal initiative” with Massie’s failure to add anything new. It is surprising therefore that he manages to lump Beatty and Jellicoe together as men incapable of encouraging initiative. Since Gordon goes into some detail on their contrasting methods of command and endorses that adopted by Beatty, Hastings has clearly forgotten much that he learnt.

However he is far from alone in using derogatory terms about Beatty’s character. In recent years there has been a marked tendency for historians to pillory him, often without offering much evidence, as a man who enjoyed public adulation and sedulously promoted himself in the press to further his career. I hope to consider elsewhere whether their picture of the man is justified, not least because there is surprisingly little evidence before the war of self-publicity. Here it is sufficient to note that a surprising number of naval historians allow their hostile view of Beatty’s character to colour their judgement of him as a commander. The two questions, what sort of a man was he, and how good a commander, have to be kept distinct. Students of Montgomery’s career, for example, will be aware that a very considerable general can be a flawed character. Few recent historians, however, (although Gordon may be excepted in part), seem ready to admit any sense of that distinction to their work. Even he on occasion is led by his dislike of the man into judgments which are scarcely defensible. It is possible to feel, for example, that Beatty might have done more to concentrate his force before joining battle with Hipper, but that cannot justify the notion, subsequently and gleefully quoted by Brooks, that having “hustled for the 5th BS and won,44 VABCF was about to engage the 1st Scouting Group no better off than if the battleships had stayed in Scapa…”45 While his satisfaction at penning such an aphorism may be imagined, a moment’s self-criticism should have led to the reflection that within eighteen minutes of Beatty opening fire, the 5th Battle Squadron were engaged with the 1st Scouting Group. They were to play a major part in what followed. Again Gordon’s indictment of Seymour, which is widely shared, is generated by, but not confined to, an episode in which, it turns out, Seymour was not to blame. However, it speedily turns into an indictment of Beatty for not dispensing with his services. It is conceivable, and certainly worth exploration, that Beatty thought the earlier errors for which Seymour is damned were as much his own fault as that of the man carrying out his orders.

Hastings is correct in identifying a broad consensus amongst those writing about Jutland in the last fifty or so years (Geoffrey Bennett excepted46) about Beatty’s “errors”. Not all, however, would be of like mind about Beatty’s professional abilities. Marder wrote, for example: “The idea that he was just a gallant fighter and no more was soon dispelled when war broke out. First, the officers of the battle cruisers, then the officers of the Grand Fleet, knew that their Admiral was a master of his trade, even if he had scraped through his courses with third-class certificates.47 Not deeply involved in weapons development (he had never specialised in any particular branch of his profession), he always had a wider horizon. He was, as Admiral James puts it, ‘a big man who thought big and was able to take the big view of all Naval affairs.’”48 Balfour evidently came to a similar conclusion. His decision that Beatty should become C-In-C in Jellicoe’s place was the result of his talks with him at Rosyth. Reginald Hall informed Lady Beatty on 12 December 1916 that the change “was entirely Mr Balfour’s doing…. that when he saw you some weeks ago on the Lion, he made up his mind then that you were not the rash devil J. and others made out, but that when you did meet the enemy, it would be a fight to the finish.”49

The idea of bringing Jellicoe to the Admiralty was evidently in mind by the time the C-in-C came to London to discuss his ideas on how to combat the renewed submarine threat to commerce, and Asquith mooted the change when he saw the King shortly before 10 November. George V was a friend and former shipmate. He thought it a welcome move. Hankey was another influential voice in favour of Beatty’s appointment. When Asquith wrote to Balfour on 20 November 1916 to suggest bringing to Jellicoe to the Admiralty, he added: “I quite realise the difficulty at taking him at this moment from the Grand Fleet, especially as his only possible successor in the command (I am sure you would agree) from the combatant point of view is Beatty, who, with all his fine fighting qualities, is yet comparatively untried in the domain of fleet administration on a large scale.”50 Jellicoe would have preferred his brother-in-law, Charles Madden, to succeed him, but his view cut no ice with Balfour, nor does the outgoing First Sea Lord appear to have had any problems with the Government’s choice. It is unlikely that any of these men would have countenanced the appointment of a man lacking in brains or professional diligence. Neither Asquith nor Balfour, it should be added, had any regard for the opinions of the press, but in any case the press had not been so universally favourable to Beatty over Jutland as modern naval historians seem to suppose.

The major disconnect between the great majority of post Second World War verdicts on Beatty’s capability and the judgments made by his contemporaries must be put down in some part to historians repeating what has previously been asserted without checking whether it is soundly based. The testimony of those who knew him best is too often disregarded, although in fairness not by Arthur Marder. Impetuosity added to inexperience was Bacon’s charge against Beatty, and the language used by many historians since suggests that they continue to have at the back of their mind some idea that he was the naval equivalent of the Cavalier Prince Rupert. Beatty’s decision to turn SSE on hearing of Galatea’s sighting of German destroyers without ensuring that the 5th Battle Squadron was with him is the episode most frequently cited. In part that was Beatty’s own fault. He did less than justice to himself in implying that it was an immediate decision51, and it took some time for critics to point instead to a “twelve minute delay” in which he could have closed the five mile gap between his own ships and those of Evan-Thomas. Why he should have done so, when he thought that he was dealing only with enemy light cruisers, Bacon does not explain.52 As one might expect perhaps, neither picture is altogether correct. Beatty took some time in deciding what to do, but it was certainly less than five minutes. He saw no great reason to rush. Yet Bacon claims that, “without making certain that the 5th Battle Squadron had received the signal to alter course, he, he, full of ardour, raced away at high speed.” Most accounts unquestioningly follow Bacon’s lead. Thus, Beatty is said to have “hared off, eventually to be followed by the 5th Battle Squadron, desperately engaged in cutting corners to try to diminish the gap” (Steel and Hart p.65); “powered off to the S.S.E. behind a great pall of smoke”; “charged off to the SSE…. with his heavy support trailing far behind” (Gordon Pp.82, 100) “obeying the impulse to rush into action, hurried on, leaving his battleships to make the best of their way after him” (Gibson and Harper p.118). In fact, the speed at which he moved SSE (22 knots) was nothing like the full capability of his ships, and when he (or one of his staff) recognised that the 5th Battle Squadron had not turned, Lion made a searchlight signal to Barham to do so. The language used by so many accounts effectively disguises the truth, but it also suggests an explanation for what followed which on examination proves to be questionable.

Although he had no wish to re-open old wounds when Beatty died, Chatfield felt that he must set the record straight as far as his former chief was concerned. He wrote: “In Lord Jellicoe the Navy had its able, wise, and trusted commander. Jellicoe's responsibility was the greatest; his command was that of the queen on the chess board, a responsibility requiring that wise discretion to ensure that that great piece, the Battlefleet, should control the strategical situation throughout the War and should come into play at the proper moment, neither too soon nor too late, and should not be lightly thrown away.

"David Beatty's part in the early years was the more active and prominent one of the knight with its 'daring and unexpected advances into the enemy's corner of the board. In fulfilling that role he was the embodiment of the fighting spirit of the British Navy. He was always to the forefront, yet never rash; he was no reckless and light-hearted swordsman, as he has sometimes been represented to be, but was always imbued by the need of a wise balancing of risks, realising the responsibility of his valuable command; yet once his decision was made fearless in pursuing it.” He added: “It has been stated that Lord Beatty was not a ‘thinker’, that he lacked foresight and was a man who mainly acted on the spur of the moment. This by no means does justice to him. My experience was very different. He always most carefully planned for the future and in the tactical training of his command he was full of initiative.”53 Those on his staff concur. If at times, he seemed capable of taking a decision with great speed, it was because he had prepared his mind for certain eventualities, Drax believed, and had often anticipated what might happen. Chalmers thought he had “a phenomenally quick brain and he can take in all he wants to know in one glance. His voice conveys these mental processes in the same tempo. Each sentence is short, clipped and full of meaning. If asked for a decision he will give it ‘pat’ without a moment’s hesitation. He is full of humour and gets a great deal of fun out of his staff officers, especially when they take themselves too seriously.” 54

There were many contemporaries who shared Tyrwhitt’s view that Beatty was “a great man & becomes greater in my estimation every time I see him.”55 Rodman thought “no better or more gallant and efficient leader ever trod the deck of a battleship,”56 and in Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral added that he was “a past master in handling a fleet, and it required a master’s hand to do it efficiently…. Always perfectly calm, confident, sure of himself, he inspired the same quality in his subordinates.”57 “I have often been asked what it was that made him so pre-eminent,” Goodenough wrote. “It was not great brains. I don’t think he would lay any claims to such himself. I don’t know that it was great professional knowledge, certainly not expert knowledge of gun and torpedo. It was his spirit combined with comprehension of really big issues. The gift of distinguishing between essentials and not wasting time on non-essentials. That is acknowledged by all…. The spirit of resolute, at times it would seem almost careless, advance (I don’t mean without taking care, I mean without care of consequence) was foremost in his mind on every occasion. Whether the heavier responsibilities of Commander-in-Chiefship restrained his spirit, it is not for me to say. It certainly did not damp it…. But that he has given the example of ardent spirit of attack is certain, and that is a gift of the highest virtue and greatest value. He was so good as to permit me to see him often during the war and I never failed to benefit by so doing. Combined with that spirit, or perhaps on account of it, he had that touch which led him to give attention to essentials…”58 Earlier he had said of Beatty, it “wasn’t brains; it wasn’t even great generosity of heart or character; it was the instinct of a great Commander-in-Chief. He thought on very large lines and in other ways he acted, consciously or unconsciously, on the principles of Napoleon and Fredrick the Great, that once the issue of battle was joined, it must be left to the military instinct of the commanders in the field to carry out their duties.”59 It is worth adding that Goodenough was also an admirer of Jellicoe. Charles Madden, Jellicoe’s brother-in-law and chief of staff, wrote on 12 February 1917: “Beatty is doing well in the Fleet, though some of the gunnery ideas are queer…. He is always ready and willing to receive criticism and very approachable…”60 When commiserating with Jellicoe on his dismissal at the end of the year and worrying about what would happen, he noted “the Grand Fleet is all right as Beatty is strong enough to refuse to throw it away upon wild cat schemes”. He also told Lady Jellicoe that Beatty “is very shrewd and takes no risks. Responsibility is a great steadier.”61

Even before Beatty replaced Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief, the two men had reached identical conclusions about the strategic consequences of Jutland and the Admiralty had backed their view. But that did not render them insensible to the advantages a decisive victory would have brought, and Beatty felt strongly that it would have been easier to counter the German U-boat campaign which followed, had the destruction of the High Sea Fleet been achieved. More than that, he had ideas about how it might be brought about which show his awareness of new technology and the uses to which it could be put. Again this is not widely recognised because it does not fit in with the accepted picture of Beatty. It is worth recalling in passing that Beatty may have married wealth, but that he was born to an impoverished family of Anglo-Irish gentry, part of whose income derived from importing and selling Irish hunters. Jellicoe’s father was a director of the shipping company for whom he worked. Nevertheless Correlli Barnett in The Swordbearers chose to contrast the two British Commanders in a way that still found an echo in Channel 4’s telecast on Jutland in May 2016: “Sir John Jellicoe, with his deep professional seriousness and interest in modern naval technology, was not at all typical of those who dominated the Royal Navy of 1916. Sir David Beatty was…. Beatty himself was an able and intelligent officer, but his origins, his social and sporting obligations and his own brave but highly strung temperament prevented him from becoming a coldly calculating professional like Jellicoe or Hipper. It was characteristic that during the months of inactivity in 1914 and 1915 he should have expressed the wish to fight as a soldier on the western front – but not as an artilleryman, rather as a cavalryman in a brisk charge.”62

The way in which Beatty, as soon as he became Commander-in-Chief, looked to strengthen the aerial side of the fleet is perhaps the best rebuttal of this picture. Rather than abandon thoughts of delivering an “annihilating” blow at the High Sea Fleet, he turned his attention to the possible use of torpedo-carrying aircraft to attack it in its bases. It was not a novel idea as far as he was concerned. As early as 1913 he was concerned about the possibility of aerial attack on his own ships, and when Arthur Longmore63 was appointed as a watch-keeping officer to Tiger, he took him for walks on shore, treated him as an unofficial adviser on air matters, and with him visited the seaplane carrier Campania.64 Soon after his appointment as C-in-C, dissatisfied with the naval air situation, he wrote to the Admiralty asking what policy they proposed to pursue with regard to the naval air service. Four days later, on 25 January 1917, without waiting for a reply, he constituted the Grand Fleet Air Committee and appointed Evan-Thomas to chair it. By August 1917 he was arguing for an “Attack at dawn by torpedo planes on a very large scale, accompanied by aircraft of larger type carrying 230-lb bombs…”65; and by the spring of 1918, as the official history makes clear, he had wholly transformed the aerial position of the fleet. It was now in a position to “attain air superiority in any possible naval operations in any part of the North Sea, except within effective range of adequate German fighting aircraft from shore bases.”66 The details of how this was achieved must be found elsewhere, but Beatty’s grasp of what was possible and his desire to translate new thinking into effective action is evident. It is interesting to contrast Jellicoe’s immediate reaction to the idea of an aerial torpedo attack - “they couldn’t get there “ – with Beatty’s further thinking: while he accepted Richmond’s view it would not be wise to contemplate a similar attack on the Austrian fleet until the strike on the High Sea Fleet had been carried out, they might see if the Americans could provide one thousand planes to bomb it in harbour.67

A surprising feature of Roskill’s biography of Beatty is his seeming reluctance to revisit in detail material which he had dealt with more extensively elsewhere. Thus he devotes a single page only to Beatty’s efforts to secure an attack on the High Sea Fleet by torpedo-carrying aircraft, and manages to imply that those efforts began in October rather than August 1917. He gives no attention at all to his parallel efforts to provide the fleet with reconnaissance aircraft, fighters and torpedo and bomb carriers, and to his realisation that aeroplanes are preferable to seaplanes. However, he clearly feels that the support which Beatty gave for the creation of an Air Ministry and Air Force was decisive and also a grave misjudgement which came back to haunt him. Little attention is paid to Beatty’s reasoning: instead his support for the move is put down to his justifiable frustration with the Admiralty. However, mistaken or not, Beatty saw the future of air power as a much broader and more important question than the future of the Royal Naval Air Service.68 Roskill was fully aware of why Beatty’s view carried weight. In his introduction to Documents Relating to the Naval Air Service, published a decade earlier than the biography, he wrote: “Of the Flag officers in sea-going commands during the war Sir David Beatty showed by far the greatest vigour and drive over aviation matters. It was he who in November 1917 proposed that a Flag Officer should be appointed to command all the Grand Fleet’s aircraft and seaplane carriers – which the Admiralty quickly approved. Though it is difficult to say how many of the ideas with which Beatty bombarded the Admiralty on aviation policy in 1917-18 were originated by Rear Admiral R.F.Phillimore69…. and how many of them derived from Beatty himself and his staff, there is no doubt that the Grand Fleet showed at that time a lively awareness of the importance of aviation. Among the proposals constantly pressed by Beatty was an attack by a large force of torpedo-planes on the High Seas Fleet in its harbours70…. It is difficult not to feel that therein lay the solution to the long and unsuccessful ‘search for a naval offensive’; and that greater concentration on the true maritime functions of air power should have brought it to fruition.”71

In Beatty’s mind awareness of the possibilities offered by new technologies did not mean that they could disregard the lessons of the past. He identified with the more advanced thinkers among younger officers and differed from most of his contemporaries in the value he set on the study of naval history and war. Within a month of taking command of the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron he had drafted in his own hand a paper on the ‘Functions of a Battle Cruiser Squadron’. “The squadron,” he wrote, “is composed of vessels possessed of the offensive power of a battleship with a speed far greater than a cruiser but with a considerably reduced defensive. The power of the ship is to be gauged by her offensive rather than her defensive, and the best defensive is an overpowering offensive. Therefore it cannot be too much emphasised that when concentrated as a squadron the fighting effectiveness of each unit of the squadron is increased by the overwhelming offensive power it is able to develop as a whole.

"From a study of the great naval wars, it is impressed upon one that cruiser captains – which of necessity must include battle-cruiser Captains – to be successful must possess in a marked degree: initiative, resource, determination, and no fear of accepting responsibility. To enable them to make the best use of these sterling qualities, they should be given the clearest indication of the functions and duties of the unit to which they belong, as comprehended by the commander of that unit. They should be completely comprehensive of his mind and intentions.

"Cruiser Captains cannot be too often reminded that: In war more things occur to distract a man from the road he has entered upon, to make him doubt himself and others, than in any other human activity. Here therefore nothing else will help but an imperative maxim of von Clausewitz, which is ‘In all doubtful cases adhere to the first opinion and not give it up until a clear conviction forces us to do so.’ Von Clausewitz has impressed upon us that ‘A great part of information in war is contradictory, a greater part false, and the greatest part doubtful.’ Therefore a certain power of discrimination is necessary for the officer and the law of probability will be his guide.

"War is a perpetual conflict with the unexpected. The far greater part of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden in great uncertainty. Therefore it is imperative that captains should be supplied with all the information available, to enable the Admiral to rely upon them to grasp the situation and pursue it with resolution, using their own discretion how to act under conditions which could not have been anticipated by him. Instructions issued should not be such as to interfere with the exercise of the judgement of the Captains and should – ‘except in very exceptional cases’ – be of a very general character.”72

Beatty was later to summarise his views more succinctly, but from this initial reflection it can be seen that he understood both the nature of the weapon he wielded and Fisher’s thinking about it. More important, he thought it was best handled, not by a system of centralised command, but by team work. Through working together his Captains would get to know and understand the mind and intentions of their leader, but they would retain the freedom to use their initiative in fast-changing situations to decide how best to deliver what he wanted. Later historians have written approvingly of Beatty’s approach. Gordon, as we have seen, while often critical of the way Beatty performed his role, notes that he “institutionalised, in the BCF, an approach to action-leadership which was less formal and less signals dependent, and which expected more of his junior’s awareness and initiative.”73 By the end of his study of the way in which authoritarian command and centralised control had become the norm in the Royal Navy, it is abundantly clear why the Beatty approach to command came to prevail.

Much of Beatty’s thinking derived from Nelson, both directly and indirectly. Richmond noted a revealing conversation with him on 15 May 1917. “He told me that Jellicoe’s ignorance of war was astonishing. He had never read a book in his life before the war. He had found at last in reading Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power – Good Lord! For the first time – some quotation about Nelson, & had joyfully showed it to Beatty as a wholly new discovery, to which Beatty told him that if he would read further – Nelson’s life by Mahan, or his despatches – he would find the same idea constantly repeated throughout them.”74 It is unlikely that Beatty was referring to Jellicoe’s reading in general rather than to history books bearing on his profession, but the point to be noted is that, unlike Jellicoe, he had bought, read and reflected on the lessons that could be drawn from the volumes he mentioned. It is not clear when he had begun to do so. Lambert draws attention to the very considerable similarities between his remarks about Cruiser Captains and passages in Corbett’s The Campaign of Trafalgar75 and sees Beatty’s attendance at the Spring 1911 War Course as an important stimulus.76 Certainly he bought and read Some Principles of Maritime Strategy when it appeared.77 But his interest in Nelson went back several years before that; and by the time he took command of Juno in 1902, he was clearly thinking about tactics, and very soon about the feasibility of close blockade in modern war.

Beatty not only had an affinity with the ‘historical school’, but some association with them. Between the formation of the Naval Society and the first publication of the Naval Review in February 1913, he was one of those drawn into support for the new quarterly, to which he subscribed.78 It was no accident that one of the founders, Reginald Plunkett, was recruited to serve as his War Staff Officer, initially when Beatty commanded the cruiser Aboukir in the 1912 naval manoeuvres, and then posted on 24 February 1913 to the 1st Battle cruiser Squadron. Plunkett had written a book on Modern Naval Tactics, which the Admiralty had published in 1910, but it is not clear whether Beatty was familiar with it. Plunkett found that his new chief firmly believed that the study of naval history and, more particularly of war, had been grossly neglected and was of great value.

Less fortunately for his reputation both he and his colleagues drew analogies from the hunting field and that may well seem absurd to those who have never taken part. It did not seem so to them. Plunkett noted that he “judged immediate questions somewhat from the admirable standpoint of a huntsman hunting a fox, and in consequence his decisions always favoured the offensive and were little likely to be spoilt by " taking counsel of his fears." There was, however, nothing hasty or ill-considered about them, for he had a genius for grasping the essentials of any problem presented to him. Even before the war he had impressed on his captains that they must always be ready to fight their ships at full speed, and early in 1914 he formed the sound conclusion that he would always aim to place his forces between the enemy and their base.”79 Beatty, as Chatfield explains, “was determined that the full value of the battle-cruisers in war should be found out and developed. He instituted on every cruise, a tactical or strategical exercise designed to learn how to use superior speed and gun-power in cutting off the enemy’s force too rashly exposed by day or by night; to get early information, and to be able to place his force between the enemy and his base, and force him to action…. Every exercise was analysed by the staff and the diagrammatic results circulated to the captains.” He was seeking how best to co-ordinate tactics and gunnery and, once the results of an exercise had been digested and lessons learned, a further exercise was developed to take thinking further. “This idea of Admiral Beatty as a thoughtful strategist and tactician, planning in advance how best to utilise his forces and how to train his captains, may appear strange to readers who have been taught by post-war writers that Beatty was mere Prince Rupert, dashing and happy go lucky in the spirit of the hunting field,” Chatfield reflected, but as he went on to make clear Beatty was far more than that: “To command successfully at sea, the mind of the Admiral must not only be a master mind, but must be tuned to those under him. Faced with the need for an important decision, he cannot collect his staff and, sitting round a table, study the situation at length, hear the pros and cons, and come to a well-considered conclusion. No; he must make up his mind instantly. To do so he must have in it a balance of things, his past experiences, an accurate knowledge of the capacity of his personnel and material, and a clear view of the consequences, should his mind decide one way or the other…. confident in his own judgement, he was able, by careful mental preparation, to decide rapidly on his next step, without hesitation or visible anxiety.” What we have here is one consummate professional talking about another; and it is a far cry from the commander pictured by Gordon, let alone by Barnett.80

Beatty was a student of war, not a student of technology, and unlike his predecessors in the days of sail, knowledge of the capacity and limits of the materiel at his disposal was not engrained by the experience of previous generations in warfare. Although only 45 at the time of Jutland, he had first seen service in fully rigged ships and his thinking had to keep pace with the very rapid development of naval technology. In Chatfield, he had a Flag Captain well acquainted with the work that Arthur Pollen had done to identify and solve the problems of fire control when warships were operating at long range and manoeuvring at high speed. By the time Beatty took command of the battlecruisers, the Admiralty had rejected this system in favour of that developed by one of their fellow-officers, Fredric Dreyer. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that decision, which is still the subject of ongoing debate, Beatty’s ships were equipped with an analytic system directly dependent upon human observation, in the case of Lion and Princess Royal the Dreyer Table Mark III81, and with 9 foot Barr and Stroud Rangefinders. If Brooks is right about the capabilities of the former, the inability of the rangefinders even in good visibility to deal effectively with ranges much beyond 14,000 yards may well have been the Achilles heel of the system in place. As Professor Barr recalled, 9 foot rangefinders had been adopted by the Admiralty in 1904 when ranges in action were expected to be no greater than 6,000 yards, and there had been no haste before the war to adopt the 15 foot rangefinder, which was markedly superior in performance.82

In the spring of 1913 Beatty had already determined that he would exercise his squadron at something approaching full speed since this was how his ships would be asked to perform in war. He was easily persuaded by Chatfield to seek permission from the C-in-C, Sir George Callaghan, to fire at ranges in excess of the limit laid down by the Admiralty for the 1913 manoeuvres of 12,000 yards and at 23 knots. Permission was eventually conceded and the results were illuminating. The rangefinders could barely cope and were very inaccurate. There were other weaknesses “from which we learnt valuable lessons.” The Admiralty told Callaghan that “such a practice should have Admiralty approval; their lordships frowned, and the Inspector of Target Practice was disturbed. But David Beatty was pleased; he saw clearly his task in the coming war.”83 Sumida suggests that the story in The Times that all the battle cruisers were to be fitted with Argo clocks and Scott directors may well reflect the result of these exercises,84 but their value to Beatty was more than an improvement in the technology available; he was preparing his captains for the problems he believed they would shortly face. But he was concerned also with a range of problems to do with the fleet. He was amongst those who felt that the 1913 manoeuvres had shown how difficult it would be for the Commander-in-Chief to control so large a fleet and he sought a modicum of decentralisation; he also endorsed Callaghan’s view that it should employ gunnery and torpedo attack in conjunction when dealing with its opponent; and when asked his views on topics to be discussed at the joint conference to be held at the end of July 1914, he was amongst the Flag Officers who identified the problems submarines would pose to the fleet.85

Andrew Lambert is right to conclude therefore that Beatty was “anything but an unthinking fire-eater…. He was an educated, reflective officer widely read and suitably instructed. He took a serious interest in naval history, while his comprehension of Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher of war, reflected both the teaching at Portsmouth of the brilliant naval historian and strategist Julian Corbett and his own experience of combat.”86 Why then the obvious ambivalence in his portrait of the Admiral, the keynote set early: “His career was advanced by good fortune, publicity and money; his reputation reflected an image rather than reality; his victories only existed in the pages of the wartime newspapers.”87 The clue may lie in the next sentence: “in later life he waged a devious, if not downright dishonest campaign to maintain the illusion of glory by traducing the reputation of another officer, splitting the service down the middle in the process.”88 There are more generous passages in the essay which follows, but an abiding sense that Lambert’s dislike of what he takes to be Beatty’s self-centred ruthlessness has made it difficult for him to do full justice to his qualities as a commander. Beatty’s contemporaries, although they must have been at least as well aware of his faults, had no difficulty in thinking him a great commander. If post Second World War historians differ, the question has to be asked, whether their animus towards Beatty as a man (whether justified or not) has distorted their assessment of the evidence and their judgement of him as a commander?

Barnett’s critique appears to be rooted in the belief that an officer from an impoverished Anglo-Irish gentry family is necessarily part of a social elite who cannot be expected to espouse professionalism, but the views expressed by Gordon and Lambert appear in large part to be inspired by a belief that Beatty was a self-publicist and by his activities in relation to postwar accounts of Jutland and more particularly his treatment of Jellicoe and Evan-Thomas. Those activities are presumably to be explained by the need to keep up his reputation. That is why, before turning to the battle itself, it is necessary to deal with Beatty’s part in the controversies which developed around it. The first two chapters of what follows attempt to explain what he was about. But the major part of what follows is an analysis of Beatty’s part in the Battle of Jutland and the “errors” that he is alleged to have committed. My purpose is not to excuse any mistakes that were made, but to look for explanations that make sense rather than rush to judgement.

Because of the controversy which has raged around the battle, historians seem compelled to take sides. They have also shown themselves rather too inclined to pass judgement when they would have been better engaged is seeking to understand why the decisions made were actually taken. There are honourable exceptions, but, to take only one example, much of Marder’s account of the battle is couched in terms of a debate between partisans. For instance he devoted five pages to what transpired at 1432 when the 5th Battle Squadron failed to read a flag signal made from Lion. Cases for and against the two Admirals concerned are set out, making use of charges framed in the course of the controversy, and the conclusion reached is that neither was “blameless” and that the real problem lies in the fact that they had not before worked together, that Evan-Thomas had not been issued with the BCFOs89 nor invited to discuss Beatty’s ideas with him. While some of what is said clearly constitutes an explanation (albeit one that raises further questions), it does nothing to help us understand why Beatty did not order the 5th Battle Squadron to close in the hour which followed. To do that, the historian must try to get inside Beatty’s mind, to see the situation as he saw it. In the fog of war, mistakes are bound to be made, but at the time they were taken the decisions made must have seemed reasonable not only to Beatty but to his staff, none of whom seem to have raised the issue. We know that Beatty valued his staff and had a fair idea of how to make use of them. Whoever was to blame for the initial mistake, Beatty and also, it should be said, Evan-Thomas had almost an hour in which to minimise the distance that had opened between their flagships. As will be seen below, until Beatty turned east, Evan-Thomas was content to follow in his wake and at the same speed. It is reasonable to suppose that he was awaiting further orders, but he made no effort to resume his previous station nor to ask whether he should do so. When Beatty turned east, however, he made some effort to cut the corner, although he did not increase his speed. It is not sufficient to write this off as a mistake. Evan-Thomas was clearly not a stupid man. We need at least to ask what could have been in his mind. Equally Beatty could have made more effort to convey his intentions, although, with some reason, he may well have thought them obvious, but we are left with a problem. Evan-Thomas might have been signalled by searchlight to close or to increase his speed or even to steer a point or two to the east of the course Beatty had set. That was not done, and in most recent accounts the question ‘why’ is not even raised, let alone explored.

Two answers have been suggested, but neither seems altogether convincing. In his official life of Beatty, Chalmers offered the thought that Hipper might have been scared off if the 5th Battle Squadron had been in the line. Given what had happened at Dogger Bank, however, is it likely that Beatty would have expected them to stand and fight? If the answer to that is ‘No’, then the explanation fails. Roskill voiced, and Gordon comes close to endorsing the suspicion that Beatty did not want the 5th Battle Squadron involved lest it detract from the prowess of his Battle Cruisers. If that really was so, would he have spent months arguing that they should have been added to his command?

There is no obvious answer, but we need to seek one. The language of blame simply gets in the way. As Collingwood pointed out in The Idea of History, the historian is not concerned simply with investigating a sequence of events but a sequence of actions, in this case the unity between the outside of an event, the passage of ships from one place to another, and its inside, the thought process which led its commander to order it to move in that direction. Condemning the order as a mistake aborts the whole process of understanding why the order was made in the first place; and hence our understanding of the event. While it remains true that ‘tout comprendre’ cannot amount to ‘tout pardoner’, it is far easier to judge than to understand, and the historian’s task must be to major on understanding. Then, and only then, if still impelled to judge, will he come to a just conclusion.

There is a further problem. The historian knows what is going to happen and is tempted to frame his account in the light of hindsight. It is not only natural but right to explore why things turned out the way that they did. But there is a real danger in that process when it leads to a hunt for someone to blame. With the benefit of the 20:20 vision of hindsight, it is all too easy to impose a pattern on events and to argue that had a different decision been taken, a certain consequence would not have eventuated. But that can never be certain, and in any case the 20:20 vision which the historian enjoys was not available to individual commanders when taking their decision. A decision that may well have seemed perfectly reasonable at the time it was taken may turn out to be unfortunate in its consequences, but it not to be termed a mistake simply because, some way down the line, it contributed to an unpalatable outcome. For example, it was clearly a mistake in hindsight for Falmouth and her consorts to close on Galatea when she reported an enemy in sight, and equally for both the 1st and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons to engage in leading that enemy north-west. In effect they took themselves out of the action that was to develop. But those actions attracted little criticism from their contemporaries. They were seen as a natural response to the situation as then known. The historian can deem their decisions mistaken without thinking them unreasonable or uttering words of condemnation. We need to ask what information was available to the flag officer taking a decision. It will be recalled that Jellicoe was very clear about that when discussing what he knew or could reasonably infer before he took his deployment decision. In judging what was reasonable, therefore, the historian needs as far as is humanly possible to set aside his or her knowledge of what is going to happen, and to assess what an Admiral could see and what was known to him at the time.

A further point needs emphasis. Under no circumstances should the historian become a “hanging judge”. It is virtually impossible to be certain about anything but the immediate consequence of a decision. While It is important to keep the ‘what ifs’ in mind because they define and highlight the importance of the particular decision taken, a certain humility in addressing the consequences must be in order. Roskill liked to specify four reasons why Jutland turned out the way it did, but historians are not taking part in a controlled experiment where all the factors bar one can be held constant. The situation that they are considering was dynamic, the weather extremely patchy, and a good deal down to luck. It is right to ask ourselves as historians what would have happened had Beatty continued to drive east at 1513, or if he had turned the 5th Battle Squadron short of his own turning point at 1548, or, more speculatively still, what if Jellicoe, shedding the habits of a lifetime, had swung his own division in behind the battlecruisers at 1814, signalling to his squadron leaders to follow him.90 But in reality we can have no idea how other actors in the battle would have responded and therefore taking the matter much farther is more material for war gamers than historians. In life, it is almost impossible to know, let alone judge the full consequences of a decision taken.

In the account which follows, while not eschewing judgements altogether, I have concentrated on trying to restore to the narrative the uncertainties which faced the major commanders. That is a rather different exercise from tracing back the chain of causation which determined the outcome. But it is my belief that to describe every decision that had an unfortunate consequence as a mistake unfairly exploits our ability to pierce the veil of ignorance which necessarily surrounded commanders at the time. Scheer’s decision to turn his fleet sixteen points to starboard at 1755 was undoubtedly an error, but the task of the historian is to understand why that decision was made and what Scheer was attempting to do. Of course it is possible that some of the decisions taken were unreasonable in the light of the information already available, but more often than not it will be found that the calculations made were perfectly rational despite the fact that they can now be shown to have had unfortunate consequences. War is not akin to chess where both players can study the situation as it is, but more akin to a game of cards in which the players must not only play the hand dealt to them, but must ascertain where the other key cards lie. They may be more or less skilful in their play, but, however good their judgement, luck is also likely to take a hand in the game. Historians, no less than Bridge players, need to bear that in mind.


1 S.W.Roskill: Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. The Last Naval Hero. Collins, 1980. p.149

2 W.S.Chalmers: The Life and Letters of David Beatty, Admiral of the Fleet. Hodder & Stoughton, 1951. P.229

3 Ibid p.221

4 Commodore William ‘Barge’ Goodenough was in command of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron.

5 Andrew Gordon: The Rules of the Game. John Murray, 1996. Appendices 1 & 2 Pp. 603-10

6 Ibid. p.562

7 He had attended the War Course in the spring of 1911, had purchased and read Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911) and was familiar with the works of Mahan.

8 J.A.Yates: The Jutland controversy: a case study in intra-service politics, with particular
reference to ... The Genesis of the Naval Staff Appreciation of Jutland. University of Hull Ph.D Thesis 1998 (Digital Repository Identifier hull 4633)

9 John Brooks, ‘Jutland. British Viewpoints’ in Michael Epkenhans, Jurg Hillman & Frank nagler (eds): Jutland World War I’s Greatest Naval Battle. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Accessed as an ebook.

10 Harper Mss

11 Andrew Gordon: Rules of the Game. John Murray, PB edition 2000 p.540

12 Gordon Chapter 6 & Pp. 549-56 . In many ways this is a much more significant controversy, which will be fully analysed in Chapter 5. Almost all recent accounts of the battle are misinformed on the subject; and J.Yates goes so far as to allege that a signal was fabricated after the event, possibly in 1923. See J. Barnes, Beatty and Evan Thomas: a signal missed and a signal made’ on www.barneshistorian.com

13 K.Yates: Flawed Victory. Jutland 1916. Naval Institute Press, 2000. p.262

14 The issue will be fully discussed in Chapter 10, but it is worth noting here that his effort to impose his view on this point dates back to July 1916.

15 Commander Oswald Frewen.

16 Stephen Roskill: Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. The Last naval hero. An Intimate Biography. Collins, 1980. Chapter 15

17 Ibid. p.339

18 J.A. Yates, op.cit. p.19

19 BTY 9/5. Yates suggests that the work was under way on 1 November 1920, but provides no citation.

20 K.G.B.Dewar: The Navy from Within. Gollancz, 1937. Yates has Beatty asking Kenneth Dewar to write the work, assisted by his brother, but provides no evidence for what would have been a highly unusual and, it has to be said, unlikely move.

21 Kenneth Dewar, who had been acting in place of the Director of Plans, had protested when the 2nd Sea Lord’s Department vetoed an appointment he had made. Subsequently he found himself posted to command a cruiser in the Black Sea. Since Plunket’s request that Dewar be appointed Assistant Director of the Naval Staff College had already been turned down, Dewar felt that he was being sidelined, refused the appointment, and was contemplating leaving the Navy when the offer came from DTSD.

22 Dewar p.267

23 Ibid. p..

24 James Goldrick, ‘The Founders’ in Peter Hore (ed): Dreadnought to Daring, Seaforth, 2012. p.9

25 Quoted in The Navy from Within. Victor Gollancz, 1939. p.137

26 Gordon p.545

27 Commander C. Bellairs M.P.: The Battle of Jutland. Hodder & Stoughton, 1920. Pp.55-6. It may be worth noting that as early as 1913, Bellairs had identified that a retreating enemy would use torpedoes to cover their retreat and advocated the use of torpedo-carrying aeroplanes to prevent, or at least hinder their retreat.

28 Richmond Diary March 1917

29 Newbolt thought that the battle had “caused no radical change in fleet tactics” but Marder’s discussion of the issue qualifies this judgment considerably without fundamentally altering it, Vol. 111 (revised edition) Jutland and After Pp.270-77. Cf. Gordon Pp.

30 Gordon p.564

31 Gordon p.x

32 Rear Admiral Sir Hugh Evan-Thomas ()

33 Gordon Pp.558-9

34 Ibid.

35 Gordon p. 565

36 Gordon pp.569-70

37 Ibid. p.571

38 Ibid. pp.572-6

39 A.J.Marder (ed): Portrait of an Admiral. Jonathan Cape, 1952. p.274

40 W.S.Churchill: The World Crisis 1911-1918. Abridged and Revised edition 1931, reprinted Four Square Books (New English Library), 1960 Pp.70-71

41 Robert K.Massie: Castles of Steel. Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great war at Sea. Jonathan Cape, 2004.

42 The source of this remark appears to be Shane Leslie: “’Flags has lost me two battles,’ he once muttered without meaning it.” Long Shadows. John Murray, 1966. p.212. Marder Vol.II p.140 gives no source for his version, which is that quoted by Gordon.

43 Max Hastings, ‘Messing about in warships’. Daily Telegraph 2 February 2004

44 A temporary swap of squadrons did not amount to a ‘victory’ and Beatty did not think it so. Had the Queen Elizabeths been under permanent command, he would have had time to inculcate his ways of thinking and the chance to work out how best to use them. Ironically his handling of them at Jutland suggests that he knew Jellicoe was right about their speed, while Jellicoe’s postwar criticism implies what he had previously denied, that they could be manoeuvred with the battlecruisers as a unit.

45 Gordon p. Quoted by Brooks

46 Captain Geoffrey Bennett: The Battle of Jutland. Batsford, 1964.

47 Marder nods. Beatty had a first class in torpedo, a second in seamanship, gunnery and pilotage, and a third in theoretical navigation.

48 Arthur J.Marder: From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume II The War Years: To the eve of Jutland 1914-16. P.11. Admiral Sir William James (1881-1973) had served as executive officer of Queen Mary in the Battle Cruiser Fleet

49 BTY 18/25/ 46-51 Ethel to DB Wednesday [13 December 1916] Beatty Papers I Pp. 385-6

50 Blanche Dugdale: Arthur James Belfour 1906-1930. NBA/Hutchinson. p.121

51 Beatty’s Despatch

52 Bacon: The Jutland Scandal. The point is explored more fully in Chapter 5 below, but Beatty had every reason to think the enemy battle fleet, if indeed it had left harbour at all, was still in the vicinity of its base, i.e. well to the south of him.

53 The Times March 1936

54 Unpublished mss.

55 Tyrwhitt to Keyes 23 November 1918. Paul Halpern (ed): The Keyes papers Vol.I No 258

56 Rodman to Hunter 15 April 1919 printed as an Introduction in Francis Hunter: Beatty, Jellicoe, Sims and Rodman, Doubleday, Page and Company, 1919.

57 Hugh Rodman: Pp.286-7

58 A Rough Record p.91

59 BBC Broadcast No 719/22 13 January 1938.

60 Madden to Jellicoe 12 February 1917 and December 1917. A.Temple Patterson: The Jellicoe Papers Vol. II Nos.

61 Quoted by Marder III (revided edition) p.

62 C.Barnett: The Swordbearers p.

63 Air Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore

64 In interview, Longmore felt that Beatty was already aware of the potentialities of aerial attack on ships, although still thinking in terms of seaplanes.

65 Portrait of an Admiral Pp.268-9. See further P.271

66 H.A.Jones: The War in the Air. HMSO. Vol. 4 p.44, and see further below.

67 Portrait of an Admiral Pp. 273-4

68 Roskill Pp.

69 Phillimore did not hoist his flag as Admiral Commanding Aircraft until March 1918.

70 Roskill notes that the idea had first been put forward by Murray Sueter in 1915; it is not clear how it came to the attention of Richmond or perhaps Beatty. Beatty’s staff officer, Roger Bellairs, will have been familiar with his brother’s ideas of aerial attack on the enemy fleet at sea.

71 S.W.Roskill (ed): Documents on the Naval Air Service. Navy Records Society, 1969. Vol.1 p.xv. See also Pp.453-4, 540, 610-11. Document Nos 156, 158, 161,175, 177,181,182,186,189,192, 194, 196, 197, 207,218, 221,238,261,265, and 275 are particularly relevant.

72 BTY printed in The Beatty papers vol.1

73 P.55

74 Marder Portrait of an Admiral p.251

75 Published in 1905.

76 Andrew Lambert, ‘Sir Julian Corbett and the naval war Course’ in Hore (ed): From Dreadnought to Daring Pp.42-3,

77 Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy was published by Longmans in 1911, the year Beatty attended the War Course. Beatty’s copy has clearly been read, but he made no annotations.

78 Drax interview. Cf. also Drax, Richmond 1957 in Drax Mss

79 ‘D.B.’ in The Naval Review May 1936 Pp.215-16

80 Gordon, like Nicholas Lambert, recognises Beatty as one of the leading “decentralisers”, but is reluctant to acknowledge his professionalism cf. Rules of the Game Pp.25-8 for an account that dwells on professional carelessness and (self-) publicity. The latter in particular is asserted rather than evidenced.

81 Queen Mary had the Mark II Table incorporating an Argo Clock Mk.4, Tiger the Mark IV Table, while the earlier battle cruisers probably made do with Mark I tables.

82 Times July 1919

83 Chatfield p.113

84 ‘Naval and Military intelligence’ The Times 27 June 1913. J.Sumida In Defence of naval Supremacy p.252 The results of the exercises were circulated on 11 June 1913. Drax Mss 4/1

85 I owe this reference to Nicholas Lambert p.291

86 Andrew Lambert, ‘David Beatty’ in Admirals. Faber & Faber, 2008 p.346

87 Ibid. p.337

88 Ibid.

89 This, although widely believed, is demonstrably untrue.

90 No signal was available to allow him to do so in an orderly fashion. Although he rebutted later suggestions, notably from Churchill, that he should have done so, we have already noted that shortly after Jutland, he restored a signal ordering deployment on a centre column to the signal book.