Hoisted from the Archives from Two Years Ago: The Poverty of Right-Wing Piketty Criticism

Liveblogging World War I: May 31, 2016: Jutland

Andrew Gordon (2013): The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command::

Before proceeding, it should be mentioned that in HM ships afternoon tea was, and is, normally available from 3.30 p.m. (‘seven-bells tea’, it used to be called, from the bells rung half-hourly throughout a watch). It was timed to straddle the change of watch at 4.0, to benefit both those going on watch and those whom they would relieve; but on an uneventful afternoon at sea it would be a welcome event for everyone. This was the first time they had gone to sea after the confusing clock-change, and although by now (the afternoon of the 31st of May) all the battlecruisers which were to survive the day, except for Lion, and all the battleships except for Malaya, had switched their bridge logs back to GMT, as will become evident in the next chapter, most of them (including Barham) were running their internal routines on the new BST. It is therefore likely that members of the ‘flag’ teams left their respective bridges after witnessing the 2.15 (3.15 BST) ‘waypoint’ turn to the north, intending to get tea comfortably out of the way before the junction with the Battle Fleet and the various demands which that event would place upon them.

The deciphering of Com1LCS’s enemy report of 2.20 may therefore have caused the hasty locating and recalling of officers who had only just gone below. The ladders up to Lion’s bridge totalled 80 steps (Lewis Bayly pushed the elderly Queen Alexandra up them in 1912 and they counted them)....

Evan-Thomas’s slow response: As far as Evan-Thomas knew, there was no self-triggering arrangement which would throw the BCF from its normal cruising mode into pursuit mode without specific orders from the senior flagship. These circumstances – a surprise sighting calling for a knee-jerk pursuit – were characteristic of the BCF’s function and were unlikely to be met by the Battle Fleet. As discussed in Chapter 4, Evan-Thomas had not been favoured with a copy of BCFOs. Had he been, he would have found informative Beatty’s ‘Instructions for Concentrating Battle Cruisers when Spread, and Forming Order of Battle’, for while these injunctions were framed with individual battlecruisers, rather than a squadron of battleships, in mind, the impression they impart of the thrust of BCF lore is unmistakable:

A sudden alteration of course by the ship sighting the enemy is seen by those on either side of her far more rapidly than any signal could be sent, and, being an almost certain indication of an enemy having been sighted it should be acted upon immediately. All ships that may be required to support must proceed to do so until they know definitely that they will not be required. The immediate sequel to concentrating is forming Order of Battle and engaging the enemy. In future this will be done so far as possible without signal, and each Captain is to use his discretion in handling his ship as he considers that the Admiral would wish.... Each detached ship should, at her discretion, close and engage the enemy without waiting for further orders.... Ships must never suppose that the absence of a signal implies that any given action is not sanctioned by the Flagship; on the contrary it usually denotes that the Admiral relies on each ship to take whatever action may be necessary without waiting to be told.... The sole object of these instructions is to enable ships to understand beforehand the principles of rapid co-operation, so that the enemy may be brought to action at the earliest possible moment without any ship needing or wishing to wait for detailed orders from the Admiral.

To point out again that Evan-Thomas’s ignorance of BCFOs was not mainly his fault is to emphasize again the divergence between the tactical regimes of the Battle Fleet and the BCF, and more specifically, between the habits of thought expected of their respective junior flag-officers. But if one ferrets around in the ‘70 closely printed pages’ of GFBOs, one finds, amongst the ‘mass of detail which should have been common knowledge’, ‘initiative’ injunctions which, while designed to preserve the unity of a deployed battle-line, are at least partly transferable in sense to Barham’s dilemma at 2.32:

The Fleet is to be guided generally by the movements of the division led by the Commander-in-Chief, which should be considered as the rallying point. The movements of the Commander-in-Chief must therefore be very carefully watched and his wishes if possible anticipated. Signals may either be indistinguishable or they may take too long to get through to a large fleet. This does not mean that they will not be made, but the movement signalled may be commenced before the executive is given.... In the event of a movement of the Commander-in-Chief’s division carried out without signal or before a signal has got through to all ships in the line, the other divisions should conform.

Jellicoe’s post-war opinion that Evan-Thomas’s ‘actions were perfectly correct’, and that his squadron’s delay was ‘entirely due to the neglect of the Vice-Admiral Commanding the battlecruisers’, is therefore questionable in the light of his own standing orders – which legitimize Captain Craig’s and Commander Egerton’s insubordinate desire to follow Beatty without further ado.

To Sir Charles Madden (Jellicoe’s chief of staff) also, the question of initiative was not an issue, the delay being due to the battlecruisers’ funnel smoke and to ‘the fact that the flag signals could not be read in Barham, and that they were not repeated by searchlight or W/T guardship’. But Evan-Thomas and others knew that this was too selective and too simplistic an explanation, and found it necessary to produce more complicated alibis. For example:

(1) After the war he argued that his very distance and bearing from Beatty led him to believe that VABCF was relying on him to carry on northwards to prevent the enemy’s escape in that direction or to catch him in a crossfire. Marder is quite impressed with this riposte, and at first sight it looks good; though as Evan-Thomas had had seven years to brood about it, well it might. It has three faults:

a. It requires Barham to have read the ‘SSE’ signal, or at least to have understood Lion’s movements. Yet RA5BS’s basic alibi was that the ‘intense smoke made by the battlecruisers’ bringing forward their fires [made it] impossible to see what Lion was doing’. It also requires those on Barham’s bridge to have felt certain that they knew what Beatty wanted them to do, whereas Captain Craig’s and Commander Egerton’s suggestion, and Evan-Thomas’s alleged response, rule out certainty.

b. Instead of continuing on its NbyE course, the 5th BS, as we have seen, actually turned 2 points further away onto a course of N by W. Now, either Barham had received Galatea’s W/T report of hostile cruisers ‘bearing ESE, course unknown’, or she hadn’t. RA5BS’s ROP, his post-war statements, and the midshipman-of-the-watch, all say she had; in which case a new course at an angle of 11 points (123¾°) from the enemy’s reported location – course unknown – was of no imaginable use. Professor Marder for some reason says she hadn’t, in which case Evan-Thomas possessed no information about the enemy. Either way, the 2-point NbyW turn cannot possibly have been an interception ploy (and would probably not have been a turn-together if, somehow, it had been).

c. Had Beatty intended the 5th BS to carry on northwards, he would have exempted its destroyer screen (the 1st DF) from the warning order to destroyer flotillas to redeploy round their respective heavy groups for a course of SSE. Marder alleges that this signal was not listed in Barham’s signal log as having been received, but the rest of the squadron copied it and Fearless, 1st DF leader, is said to have listed it as relayed by Barham (nearly all signal logs were destroyed long ago).

(2) Admiral Chalmers, Lion’s assistant navigator in 1916 and later Beatty’s biographer, points to a signal at 2.25 from Beatty to Evan-Thomas to ‘look out for advanced cruisers of Grand Fleet’ and suggests that this probably resulted in ‘all eyes on the bridge of the Barham being turned northward’. Marder echoes this speculation. This too has flaws, however.

a. Jellicoe – assuming he was on schedule, which he wasn’t – was still 70 miles away and visual contact with his scouts could not be expected for an hour and a half. In fairness, though, the likelihood that Evan-Thomas had not been apprised of the agenda should be borne in mind.

b. A more substantial problem is presented in the Handbook of Signalling: "No man can be regarded as an efficient signalman unless he is able to keep a good look-out in every direction; everything in sight should be observed by signalmen and any occurrence of importance or interest brought to the notice of those concerned." Indeed, the warning signal to destroyers to re-form for a course of SSE should certainly have kept the battleship’s duty-telescope focused on Lion – assuming, of course, the signal was reported to the bridge.

Sir David therefore charged off to the SSE to sort out Galatea’s enemy light-cruisers – or rather to block their line of retreat – with his heavy support trailing far behind. Had only light-cruisers been in the offing, the 5th BS’s absence wouldn’t have mattered two pins. But as Barham belatedly put her helm over, 30 miles to the east Galatea’s Morse-key was tapping out ‘URGENT. HAVE SIGHTED LARGE AMOUNT OF SMOKE AS THOUGH FROM A FLEET BEARING ENE.’ Beatty now came round to a north-easterly course to give Alexander-Sinclair direct support, and within the hour five large sleek pale-grey shapes were looming dimly in the haze to the north-eastwards of Lion. The die was cast.

Beatty later defended himself by asking rhetorically if six British battlecruisers should wait for support before tackling five German. Of course not, had that equation been the whole story; but until Hipper’s force was sighted and counted, it was believed that the 1st Scouting Group had been joined by the new Hindenburg and would thus number six in total and possibly include two battlecruisers with 15-inch guns. If such odds were unexceptionable to VABCF, why had he made such a fuss about needing the Queen Elizabeths in the first place? Having hustled for the 5th BS, and won, VABCF was about to engage the 1st Scouting Group no better off than if the battleships had stayed in Scapa, and it was substantially his own fault. Nelson, with whom he was wont to identify, would have deplored the loss of opportunity to field crushingly superior force.

But even now, it is unlikely that anyone in the BCF who was aware of the Queen Elizabeths’ distance astern, was much bothered. Indeed, Walter Cowan, the captain of Princess Royal, was seized with the fear that ‘that damned 5th Battle Squadron is going to take the bread out of our mouths’; and Roskill considers it ‘reasonable to extend Cowan’s thinking to the admiral whom he so dearly admired’.

‘Damn those heavies, they’ll have the laugh of us today,’ Lord Cardigan had fumed on the slopes of Balaclava, as he watched James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade pitch into a mass of Russian cavalry in the valley below. The battlecruisers were certainly not going to be upstaged.