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Liveblogging World War I: May 27, 1916: Jutland

Liveblogging World War I: May 26, 1916: Jutland

Beatty battle cruiser fleet Google Search

Andrew Gordon: The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command:

Interaction between Beatty and Evan-Thomas appears, by contrast, to have been non-existent.

Evan-Thomas was by age, temperament and background a root and branch Jellicoe man and by no stretch of the imagination a potential member of the Beatty club. His Victorian code of honour – his sense of what was and wasn’t ‘the done thing’ – itself precluded a hail-fellow friendship with his fast and flashy (and considerably younger) superior. Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Barnard later wrote:

My uncle was a career naval officer of limited means, utterly devoted to his wife and with rather strict moral principles about any questions of divorce or extra-matrimonial entanglements. It is evident that he could have had nothing in common personally with Beatty, with his riches, his wife’s yacht etc etc., and I am sure that he did not like him personally because of his flair for publicity and dress and also because he was ‘Winston Churchill’s pet’.

But the fact that the two admirals were chalk and cheese should have been irrelevant. Duty and loyalty were watchwords to Evan-Thomas, and Beatty must take the blame for the apparent, if scarcely believable, fact that he neither interviewed him, in those eight days before sailing, nor sent over a copy of BCF Standing Orders (although Barham must have been supplied with those administrative memoranda which related to harbour routines, leave, dress, football pitches, shore canteens etc.). Whether this means that RA5BS was discouraged from reporting in person to VABCF on arrival, is unclear (Beatty may have been ashore, at Aberdour House or elsewhere, for much of the time), but it seems there was no meeting worth the name between the two admirals.

If Beatty had run his ‘fleet’ strictly by the book – that is to say, Jellicoe’s book – this omission might not have mattered much. But he did not. He had institutionalized, in the BCF, an approach to action-leadership which was less formal and less signals-dependent, and which expected more of his juniors’ awareness and initiative. It was perfectly within his prerogatives to promulgate his own standing orders to define and regulate the specialized role of his command, as a supplement to those governing the Grand Fleet as a whole. But Beatty’s BCF Orders had the characteristics of instructions, the semantic distinction of which held an old, but at the time buried, significance in British naval ethos.

Furthermore, his action-doctrine pre-dated both the Grand Fleet and Jellicoe’s command-in-chief by sixteen months (having been developed under the more indulgent regime of Sir George Callaghan, the last C-in-C Home Fleets). With the onset of war he was all the more determined that the battlecruisers should continue to be ‘imbued with the ideas & principles which have governed our training in the past’, and thus, for better or for worse, Jellicoe’s GFBOs had an uphill task to attain the authority, over this portion of the Grand Fleet, to which seniority entitled them. Of the transposition of Hood’s squadron and Evan-Thomas’s, Captain Geoffrey Bennett offers these confusing remarks:

That this might have repercussions on the Grand Fleet’s tactics, if it should be ordered to sea to counter an enemy sortie, was understood by Jellicoe and Beatty. Hood’s ships were no substitute for Evan-Thomas’s: they could only be used as a spearhead for Jellicoe’s cruisers. The British battle-fleet would, therefore, be without the fast van squadron with which the Commander-in-Chief envisaged achieving a concentration of fire on part of the enemy line. On the other hand, if the heavy guns and armour of the 5BS were to be an adjunct to the BCF, Beatty would have to allow for its slightly lower speed. For these reasons neither Admiral issued any instructions for using the temporarily attached squadrons with their own fleets; Beatty intended that, at the first opportunity, Evan-Thomas should rejoin Jellicoe, who he knew would send Hood to the BCF.

Firstly, there was no question of ‘if it should be ordered to sea’. The planned sweep towards the Norwegian coast had been in the programme since the transfer of squadrons was first agreed, and, once at sea, it was known that the 5th BS and 3rd BCS would have to occupy their respective temporary billets until the BCF could rendezvous with the Battle Fleet – upon which they would swap places again.

Secondly, the BCF was much more likely to meet the enemy while separated from the Battle Fleet (for that was its job) than the Battle Fleet was to meet the enemy in the absence of the BCF. Only if Jellicoe came upon a High Seas Fleet which Beatty had failed to find first, would the battle-line have to be deployed with Hood still standing in for Evan-Thomas. But if the BCF encountered enemy forces in its more southerly sweep before joining up with Jellicoe, action would necessarily commence while Evan-Thomas was still standing in for Hood.

And thirdly, Beatty had argued strongly for the transfer of the Queen Elizabeths on positive operational grounds. Nobody had forced these ships on him. The idea that VABCF, having made all that fuss, really regarded the 5th BS as a net handicap, is too big to be infiltrated in an off-hand manner.

Whatever reasons of circumstance or prejudice lay behind Beatty’s neglect of RA5BS, he appears at least to have assumed that the German 1st Scouting Group would not be encountered before Evan-Thomas and Hood had re-exchanged places. Not only does such an assumption make a nonsense of the 5th BS’s transference to Rosyth – for if the BCF was not going to meet the enemy while the 3rd BCS was absent, then the battleships might just as well have stayed in Scapa Flow – it was also, of course, a shockingly unprofessional gamble.

In other instances Beatty seems to have been commendably aware of the importance of ‘community of thought’ between senior officers. Referring to his old friend Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt of the Harwich destroyer force, in a letter to Jellicoe only a few weeks before Jutland, he said: ‘I have had many operations with [the] Commodore and have seen him once, for five minutes! Surely this is not wise or practical. One hour’s conversation is worth a volume of correspondence.’ Why this timeless desideratum should not have extended to Hugh Evan-Thomas is unclear.

An hour’s conversation might have saved a thousand lives...

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