Churchill Memorandum on a War Staff for the Royal Navy

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Memorandum on a War Staff for the Royal Navy written by Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill soon after becoming First Lord of the Admiralty.[1] The Admiralty War Staff was the result.



8 January 1912

In establishing a War Staff for the Navy it is necessary to observe the broad differences of character and circumstances which distinguish naval from military problems. War on land varies in every country according to numberless local conditions, and each new theatre, like each separate battlefield, requires a special study. A whole series of intricate arrangements must be thought out and got ready for each particular case; and these are expanded and refined continuously by every increase in the size of armies, and by every step towards the perfection of military science. The means by which superior forces can be brought to decisive points in good condition and at the right time are no whit less vital, and involve far more elaborate processes than the strategic choice of those points, or the actual conduct of the fighting. The sea on the other hand, is all one, and, though ever changing, always the same. Every ship is self-contained and self-propelled. The problems of transport and supply, the infinite peculiarities of topography which are the increasing study of the general staffs of Europe, do not affect the naval service except in an occasional and limited degree. The main part of the British Fleet, in sufficient strength to seek a general battle, is always ready to proceed to sea without any mobilisation of reserves as soon as steam is raised. Ships or fleets of ships are capable of free and continuous movement for many days and nights together, and travel at least as far in an hour as an army can march in a day. Every vessel is in instant communication with its fleet and with the Admiralty, and all can be directed from the ports where they are stationed on any sea points chosen for massing by a short and simple order. Unit efficiency, that is to say the individual fighting power of each vessel, is in the sea service for considerable periods entirely independent of all external arrangements, and unit efficiency at sea, far more even than on land, is the prime and final factor, without which the combinations of strategy and tactics are only the preliminaries of defeat, but with which even faulty dispositions can be swiftly and decisively retrieved. For these and similar other reasons a Naval War Staff does not require to be designed on the scale or in the same form as the General Staff of the Army.

2. Naval war is at once more simple and more intense than war on land. The executive action and control of fleet and squadron Commanders is direct and personal in a far stronger degree than that of Generals in the field, especially under modern conditions. The art of handling a great fleet on important occasions with deft and sure judgment is the supreme gift of the Admiral, and practical seamanship must never be displaced from its position as the first qualification of every sailor. The formation of a War Staff does not mean the setting up of new standards of professional merit or the opening [1487] of a road of advancement to a different class of officers. The War Staff is to be the means of preparing and training those officers who arrive, or are likely to arrive, by the excellence of their sea service, at stations of high responsibility, for dealing with the more extended problems which await them there. It is to be the means of sifting, developing, and applying the results of history and experience, and of preserving them as a general stock of reasoned opinion available as an aid and as a guide for all who are called upon to determine, in peace or war, the naval policy of the country. It is to be a brain far more comprehensive than that of any single man, however gifted, and tireless and unceasing in its action, applied continuously to the scientific and speculative study of naval strategy and preparation. It is to be an instrument capable of formulating any decision which has been taken or may be taken, by the Executive, in terms of precise and exhaustive detail.

3. It should not be supposed that these functions find no place in Admiralty organisation at the present time. On the contrary, during the course of years, all or nearly all the elements of a War Staff at the Admiralty have been successively evolved in the practical working of everyday affairs, and have been developing since the organisation of the Foreign Intelligence Branch in 1883. The time has now come to combine these elements into an harmonious and effective organisation, to invest that new body with a significance and influence which it has not hitherto possessed, and to place it in its proper relation to existing powers.

4. The government of the Navy has by long usage been exercised by the Board of Admiralty representing the office of Lord High Admiral in commission. There is no need to alter this constitution, which has been respected through centuries of naval supremacy by all ranks in the fleets. The War Staff will, like all other persons in the Admiralty or the Navy, be under the general authority of the Board of Admiralty. It will not interpose any barrier between the Board and the Navy. All the orders which emanate from the Board will continue to be transmitted in the regular manner by the Secretary to those whom they concern.

5. Each of the Sea Lords on the Board of Admiralty has a special sphere of superintendence assigned to him by the First Lord in pursuance of the Order in Council. The First Sea Lord is charged with preparations for war and the distribution of the Fleet. The Second Sea Lord, who is to be kept in close relation to the First Sea Lord, mans the Fleet and trains the men. The Third Sea Lord directs the military construction of the Fleet; and the Fourth Sea is responsible for furnishing it with adequate and suitable stores and ammunition. All these Heads of large departments will have occasion, in the sparge of their respective duties, to recur to the War Staff or its various branches for general information or for working out special inquiries. [1488]

6. Since, however, under the distribution of Admiralty business on the Board, the First Sea Lord occupies for certain purposes, especially the daily distribution of the Fleet, on which the safety of the country depends, the position of a Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, with the First Lord immediately over him as the delegate of the Crown in exercising supreme executive power, it follows that the War Staff must work at all times directly under the First Sea Lord. His position is different in important respects from that of the senior member of the Army Council as constituted. The First Sea Lord is an executive officer in active control of daily Fleet movements who requires, like a general in the field, to have at his disposal a Chief of the Staff, but who is not the Chief of the Staff himself.

7. A proper Staff, whether naval or military, should comprise three main branches, namely, a branch to acquire the information on which action may be taken; a branch to deliberate on the facts so obtained in relation to the policy of the State, and to report thereupon; and thirdly, a branch to enable the final decision of superior authority to be put into actual effect. The War Staff at the Admiralty will, in pursuance of this principle, be organised from the existing elements, in three Divisions: the Intelligence Division, the Operations Division, and the Mobilisation Division. These may be shortly described as dealing with War information, War Plans, and War Arrangements respectively. The Divisions will be equal in status, and each will be under a Director who will usually be a Captain of standing. The three Divisions will be combined together under a Chief of the Staff.

8. The Chief of the Staff will be a Flag Officer. He will be primarily responsible to the First Sea Lord, and will work under him as his principal assistant and agent. He will not, however, be the sole channel of communication between the First Sea Lord and the Staff; and the First Lord and the First Sea Lord will whenever convenient consult the Directors of the various Divisions or other officers if necessary. This direction is essential to prevent that group of evils which have always arisen from the 'narrow neck of the bottle' system. The Chief of the War Staff will guide and co-ordinate the work of the Staff in all its branches. He will, when desired, accompany the First Lord and the First Sea Lord to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

9. Although the methodical treatment of the vast number of subjects to be dealt with by the Staff requires that there should be divisions and subdivisions, yet it is imperative that these should never be permitted to develop into 'water-tight' compartments. It will be found that there is so much overlapping between divisions, that a constant, free, and informal intercourse between them is indispensable. To promote this, the Chief of the Staff will be enjoined to hold frequent meetings—to be called 'Staff meetings'—with the Heads of the three Divisions, and each of the Directors will be kept fully [1489] acquainted with the work of their two colleagues. Each one of the Directors will be ready at any moment to act for the Chief of the Staff in the latter's absence from whatever cause. In times of profound peace, action has often to be taken immediately on the receipt of some telegraphic report, or a request from one of the other Departments of State; one of the three Directors will therefore always remain within prompt call by messenger, night and day.

10. The functions of the War Staff will be advisory. The Chief of the Staff, when decision has been taken upon any proposal, will be jointly responsible with the Secretary for the precise form in which the necessary orders to the Fleet are issued, but the Staff will possess no executive authority. It will discharge no administrative duties. Its responsibilities will end with the tendering of advice and with the accuracy of the facts on which that advice is based.

11. Decision as to accepting or rejecting the advice of the Staff wholly or in part rests with the First Sea Lord, who, in tin- name of the Board of Admiralty, discharges the duties assigned to him by the Minister. In the absence of the First Lord for any cause the Second Sea Lord would act for him.

12. It is necessary that there should be a close and whole-hearted cooperation between the War Staff at the Admiralty and the General Staff of the Army. A proper connection will also be maintained between the War Staff and the various Departments of State which are involved in the different aspects of its work. It is not necessary to specify further in this memorandum the distribution of duties which will be made between the various branches of the Staff.

13. The personnel of the War Staff must be considerable in numbers, and will consist of naval officers, representing most grades and every specialist branch, fresh from the sea and returning to the sea fairly frequently. Nothing in the constitution of the Staff will be designed to arrest the free play of professional opinion in all its members from top to bottom. Fresh ideas, new suggestions bred by independent study and reflection, may find their proper expression in all ranks. Disciplined co-operation in working out schemes which have been prescribed will not exclude reasoned criticism and original conceptions, the central objects being to form at once a convenient and flexible machine for the elaboration of plans and a school of sound and progressive thought on naval science.

14. The selection and training of the officers to compose a Staff of the nature described is important. Hitherto no special qualifications have been regarded as essential for the officers employed in the Intelligence and Mobilising Departments, because the ordinary sea training of naval officers was supposed to supply all that was required. This training, however, although admirable on its practical side, affords no instruction in the broader [1490] questions of strategy and policy, which become increasingly important year by year. A change in this respect is therefore considered advisable, and a special course of training at the War College will form an essential part of the new arrangements. The President of the College will be entrusted with this important duty, and, in order that it may be carried out to the best effect, he will at all times be in close touch and association with the Chief of the Staff. In course of time the appointment will be held by a Flag Officer who has been a Staff Officer himself. Candidates for the Staff will be selected from volunteers among Lieutenants of suitable seniority as well as officers of other branches throughout the service, irrespective of their previous qualifications as specialist officers or otherwise, and those who pass the necessary examinations at the end of or during the War College course will be eligible to receive appointments either at the Admiralty or on the Staff of Flag Officers afloat as they fall vacant. In all cases, however, regular periods of sea-going executive duty will alternate with the other duties of Staff Officers of all ranks, in order that they may be kept up to the necessary standard as practical sea officers. All appointments on sea-going staffs will in the course of time be filled by these officers, and form the proper avenue to eventual employment in the highest Staff positions at the Admiralty.

15. The personnel of the Staff as at first established will necessarily consist of officers who will not have received the new Staff training. A certain number of officers with suitable qualifications will therefore be appointed to the Staff at once. These officers, and in the future those who, having successfully graduated in the Staff course at the War College, may be selected for employment, will be constituted as a specialist branch as 'Staff Officers', with, in certain cases, special allowances, in the same manner as the officers who have specialised in gunnery, torpedo, and other branches. The organisation to which they belong while serving at the Admiralty will be officially known as the 'Admiralty War Staff'. The selection and appointment of the officers who will form the Staff on its first establishment will be promulgated at an early date, and their actual work will commence very shortly after.

16. It is hoped that the result of these arrangements will be to secure for the Navy a body of officers afloat and ashore whose aptitudes for staff duties have been systematically trained and developed; and secondly to place the First Sea Lord in a position whence he can decide and advise on the grand issues without being burdened with undue detail, and with every assurance that no detail has been neglected.

[W. S. C.]


  1. Churchill. Companion Volume II Part 3 1911-1914. pp. 1486-1490.