Instructions for the Conduct of a Fleet in Action

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These Instructions for the Conduct of a Fleet in Action were promulgated by the Board of Admiralty in October, 1913. This copy is taken from the papers of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe.[1] The contents differ slightly to those reproduced in Naval Tactical Notes, Volume I. The latter also omits the instructions on "Peace Training."[2] Hough mistakenly confuses these instructions with Conduct of a Fleet in Action issued in 1914 by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets, Admiral Sir George A. Callaghan, which were supplementary to the instructions and ordered to be kept with them.[3] Marder incorrectly attributes authorship of the instructions to Callaghan.[4]



[Copy] No. 282

Instructions for the Conduct of a Fleet in Action.


In carrying out the intentions of the Admiral, commanders of squadrons, divisions or subdivisions should be given a wide discretion as to the conduct of the ships under their immediate orders.


Commander of squadrons, divisions, subdivisions, or any columns detached from the main body of the fleet, and ordered to attack the enemy independently, should be careful not to expose their commands to the fire of a superior force by closing him prematurely, and should endeavour to bring their ships into action at a time and in a manner which will enable all portions of the fleet to give the most effective support to one another.

The above does not imply that all portions of the fleet necessarily come into action at the same time, but if it is the intention of the Admiral that this should be so, every effort should be made to bring it about, as its importance may be very great.


(1) Guide.

The leading ship of a column will always become the guide of the column without signal; if the leading ship is so damaged as to be obliged to quit the line her next astern automatically becomes guide. (See Article X.)

(2) Manœuvring and Gunfire.

Commanders of squadrons, divisions or subdivisions and captains of ships should exercise discretion as to manœuvring their squadrons, divisions, subdivisions or ships to develop the maximum fire on the enemy and to avoid interfering with the fire of, or firing into, other columns or ships. It is of greater importance to manœuvre squadrons, divisions, subdivisions or ships so that alterations of course are small, and sudden and large changes of range or bearing are avoided, than to follow strictly in the wake of the guide of the column.

(3) Rear Ships.

When the line of battle has been formed, the rear ships, if out of range, are to be brought into action as soon as possible under the senior officer of their division (or subdivision) without further orders, by increasing speed and forming them on a line of bearing, if necessary.


If, during an engagement, a column should be thrown into disorder, the line is to be reformed as expeditiously as possible, ships taking station in the sequence in which they find themselves, without waiting for the signal to do so.


Although the signal to “Open fire” may have been made, it should not be obeyed by ships which are out of effective range of the enemy or by those which from their position are liable by their fire to damage friendly ships. Firing over another ship during battle is not justifiable, owing to the possibility of guns being pointed on the wrong target, but fire may be continued over torpedo craft which are proceeding to attack the enemy.


No ships are to quit the line (or any position in which they have been specially stationed for a definite purpose) to pursue any enemy's ship or ships which may be disabled or are attempting to escape, until ordered to do so by the Admiral or the commander of their squadron or division, or by the commander of their column if detached.


Though a ship be partially disabled and hard pressed by the enemy in action, the captain is to use his utmost endeavour to maintain the position of the ship in the line, but if, in consequence of a loss of speed or control, temporarily or otherwise, he is unable to do so, he should haul of the line, when possible on the disengaged side, at the same time making a signal to show he is doing so. The ship is to take station in rear of the line and resume action as quickly as possible.


If the Admiral, or the commander of a squadron or division, be disabled or killed during an action, the officer next in seniority in the fleet, squadron, or division, is to be informed at once, and is to assume command of the fleet, squadron, or division.

If any flag officer be disabled or killed, his flag is to be kept flying until the battle is ended, or the enemy be no longer in sight.


If the flagship of the Admiral be disabled in action he will take such steps as he may consider desirable to enable him to continue to exercise his command.

If the flagship of any other flag officer be disabled in action, he is not to call a ship out of the line during the action in order to embark in her, but, if a suitable opportunity offers, he may transfer his flag to another vessel (not already carrying a flag), one of his own command for preference.


Should the fleet fall in suddenly with the enemy, it may happen that part of the fleet may come into action without the Admiral being able to make signals for the order of the attack; the officer in command of that portion of the fleet will then act according to his own discretion and as the circumstances of the case may require.


(i) The term “the Admiral” signifies the senior officer present, whether he be the Commander-in-Chief or not.

(ii) The word “signal” means any form of communication available, whether made by visual, Wireless Telegraphy or other method.

The Instructions for the Conduct of a Fleet in Action contained in the Signal Manual (pages 74 to 77) and in the Flotilla Signal Book (pages 250 to 252) are hereby cancelled.


October 1913.

(M 0426 13/A)


[Copy] No. 282

Peace Training.

Peace training should be planned and arranged, as far as possible, to train the fleet as a whole, and to exercise the flag officers, captains, and personnel in the duties which will be required of them in war.

2. The Admiral will constantly discuss with the officers commanding squadrons under his orders the tactics he intends to use in battle, and the particular rôle which he will require the various squadrons to play, both when in company with and when separated from him.

3. Amongst the matters which the Admiral will discuss with the senior officers of his fleet the following should receive special attention:—

(i) The cruising order which he intends to adopt when prepared to meet the enemy, and the method by which he proposes to form order of battle when the time arrives to do so.
(ii) The general plan of action which he intends to pursue.
(iii) The tactics he will adopt in the early stages of an action; particularly in regard to meeting possible forms of attack by the enemy.
(iv) The discretionary power to act on their own initiative which he will give to his flag officers during a fleet action.
(v) The employment of the battle-cruisers in war, including their co-operation during a fleet action.
(vi) The employment of cruisers and light cruisers in war, including their co-operation during a fleet action.
(vii) The duties of a destroyer flotilla attached to the battle fleet in war, and its co-operation during a fleet action.
(viii) The distribution of gunfire, the range at which fire is to be opened, the nature of projectile, and the range to which he intends to close.
(ix) The influence of torpedo fire on his tactics, as regards the fire both of his own ships and of the enemy.
(x) The distance apart of ships in column in cases where it is desirable to depart from the general rule, viz., close order.
(xi) The attack of disabled ships of the enemy.
(xii) Arrangements for signalling in action.
(xiii) Arrangements in the event of his being incapacitated or his flagship disabled during an action.
(xiv) The conduct of ships that may be temporarily disabled.

4. Admirals commanding squadrons should use every opportunity of conferring with their junior flag officers and captains, and of fully discussing with them the above matters, as well as other points which concern the conduct of their commands in action.

5. Similarly, captains should fully explain to their immediate subordinates both the Admiral's views on the conduct of an action and also their own intentions as regards the actual fighting of their ship, so that in the event of the captain being incapacitated during an action the officer who succeeds in command shall be well prepared to continue the action in full knowledge of what may be required of him.

6. It is certain that signalling in action will be difficult and may be interrupted at any time, hence previous arrangements to meet definite tactics by the enemy are essential.

7. When ships are in company opportunities should be taken of signalling from the action position and of training the eye, quick perception, and judgement of officers, by not using cones and speed flags or lights.

All tactics, including the routine evolutions of cruising, anchoring, and weighing, should be looked upon as opportunities for exercising captains in handling their ships with a view to mutual co-operation in battle.

In battle exercises in peace it is most important that signalling and the use of cones and speed flags should be reduced to a minimum, and be made to simulate war conditions as closely as possible. The presence of exposed personnel on the bridges of ships is also to be discouraged.

Section IV. of the Private Signal Instructions is hereby cancelled and all copies are to be destroyed by fire.


October, 1913.

(M 0426 13/B.)


  1. Jellicoe Papers. British Library. Add MS 49011. ff. 165-167.
  2. Naval Tactical Notes, Volume I. pp. 30-31.
  3. Hough. p. 270. The feckless Hough claimed that Jellicoe was "shocked to discover that his predecessor's 'Instructions for the Conduct of a Fleet in Action' covered only two or three pages." They comprised three pages. Callaghan's Conduct of a Fleet in Action comprised two.
  4. Marder. III. p. 21. Much of what Marder writes concerning tactics is inaccurate, based on ill-informed subordinates such as William James, Kenneth Dewar and Bertram Ramsay.


  • Hough, Richard (1987). The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Marder, Arthur J. (1978). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: Jutland and After, May 1916–December 1916. Volume III (Second ed.). London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192158414.
  • Naval Staff, Tactical Division (May, 1929). Naval Tactical Notes, Volume I. O.U. 6183. Copy at The National Archives. ADM 186/80.