Jellicoe:Command of the Grand Fleet

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The Life of Admiral of the Fleet
John Rushworth Jellicoe,
First Earl Jellicoe

5 December, 1869 – 20 November, 1935
Jellicoe, 1920.JPG
Background and Early LifeService as LieutenantCommanderCommand and ChinaDirector of Naval OrdnanceFlag Rank and ControllerSea Service and Second Sea LordCommand of the Grand FleetThe War at Sea, 1914-1916The Battle of JutlandAfter JutlandFirst Sea Lord and the Submarine MenaceControversy and DismissalEmpire TourGovernor-General of New ZealandThe Jutland ControversyRetirementDeath and Legacy

Prelude to War

Jellicoe himself described the last weeks of peace in 1914:

In June, 1914, my wife and I paid a visit to Aix-les-Bains; I had a little trouble in one knee, due to an accident at football [rugby] in my younger days, which under medical advice took me to Aix for treatment. We spent a pleasant three weeks there playing a good deal of tennis and making trips into the surrounding country. During our stay there the news reached us of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife at Sarajevo; and, as time passed, the international position appeared to be one of some anxiety. We left Aix-les-Bains early in July, and on the way home spent a week end at Wimereux where later on during the war a big hospital was established.[1]

While in Aix on 17 June, Jellicoe had written to his friend Sir Frederick T. Hamilton of his own future prospects after completing his tenure as Second Sea Lord:

When I came to the Admiralty the First Lord [Churchill] indicated to me pretty clearly that he intended to offer me the command of the Home Fleet in succession to Callaghan. He has spoken frequently since I have been Second Sea Lord as if this was settled, and has even gone so far as to agree that I should go on half pay in September in readiness for it, as I once told him that I wanted three months' spell before taking up the command if he intended to offer it to me. But up to date he has not offered it, and as we so constantly disagree, it is quite possible that he may think I am not the right person for it.[2]

It is somewhat difficult to ascertain when Jellicoe was definitely earmarked to succeed Callaghan as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, as none of his three main biographers give much mention to it. Indeed, on 8 May, 1914, Lord Fisher was moved to write in a postscript to Churchill, "What about nominating Jellicoe to succeed Callaghan so as to make sure! You never know what a day may bring forth!"[3] In June it was rumoured in public that Callaghan would be succeeded by Jellicoe after hauling down his flag in December.[4]

Upon his return to Britain, Jellicoe had to deal with a report Churchill had asked him to look over during his holiday, concerning the occupation of the German islands of Sylt or Borkum. As Jellicoe recounted later, "I felt that, as both islands could be commanded by long-range gunfire from the mainland, we could not usefully hold the islands after their capture, since any vessels which we based on them would be exposed to this attack, with no possibility of reply.[5]

Notice Given

The letter which gave Jellicoe command of the Grand Fleet.

Jellicoe later described the last days of peace and the background to his becoming Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet:

In the latter part of July, when the situation in Europe had assumed a threatening aspect, Mr. Churchill, the First Lord, informed me that in the event of hostilities occurring involving this country, it was considered necessary that the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet should have the assistance of a Second-in-Command, and he added that I had been selected for the appointment, and it was desired that I should arrange with Sir George as to the ship in which I was to fly my flag.[6]

On 25 July a member of Callaghan's staff was ordered to London with the Home Fleets' war plans, which were delivered to Jellicoe in person at his Sussex Square home.[7]

Having apparently settled into a first-class carriage at King's Cross for the journey north to Wick, the nearest mainline train station to the Orkneys, Jellicoe was given an envelope by a naval officer. Upon the front of the envelope were hand-written orders for opening by W. Graham Greene, the Secretary to the Admiralty:[8]

Only [double-underlined] to be opened on receipt of telegraphic instructions from the Admiralty to that effect, which will be conveyed in the words:—
"Open secret personal envelope taken with you from London"
Vice-Admiral Sir John Jelliicoe KCB &c.[9]

That same evening, Churchill wrote to King George V:

Shd war come I shall have to submit to Your Majesty the name of Sir John Jellicoe for the supreme command. I have reached with regret the conclusion that Sir George Callaghan is not equal to the strains wh it wd entail upon the C. in C. These are not times when personal feelings can be considered unduly. We must have a younger man. Your Majesty knows well the purely physical exertion wh the command of a gt fleet demands. This however can remain in suspense until the situation becomes definite.[10]

The following day he again wrote to the King:

Mr Churchill with his humble duty submits to Your Majesty that the present situation renders a change in the Supreme Command of the Fleet imperative. Sir John Jellicoe has now arrived at Scapa, and Mr Churchill proposes, either tomorrow or the next day to relieve Sir George Callaghan & to appoint Sir John Jellicoe, with the acting rank of Admiral, to be Commander-in-Chief. Mr Churchill would respectfully and most earnestly ask Your Majesty's approval to the course proposed.[11]

Reluctance to Assume Command

Jellicoe himself later described his journey to Scapa Flow:

A thick fog prevailed at Wick, and the Boadicea, the ship in which I made the passage to Scapa Flow, was not able to leave until late in the afternoon. When I reported myself to the Commander-in-Chief, the knowledge of the event which was apparently impending made the interview both embarrassing and painful, as I could see that he had no knowledge of the possibility of his leaving the fleet, and obviously I could not tell him. We discussed various arrangements, including the question of the defence of Scapa Flow, for which temporary, but naturally inadequate, measures were being energetically taken within the limited resources at the disposal of the fleet.[12]

At 10:30 on 1 August, however, Jellicoe sent the following personal telegram to Churchill:

Detained Wick by fog. Am firmly convinced after consideration that the step you mentioned to me is fraught with gravest danger at this juncture and might easily be disastrous owing to extreme difficulty of getting touch with everything at short notice. The transfer even if carried out cannot safely be accomplished for some time. I beg most earnestly that you will give matter further consideration with First Sea Lord before you take this step.

He also sent the same telegram to Battenberg, ending this message with, "You will understand my motive in wiring is to do best for country not personal considerations."

The following day, 2 August, having hoisted his flag as Second-in-Command in the battleship Centurion,[13] he sent the following message to both Churchill and Battenberg:

Reference my personal telegram last night. Am more than ever convinced of vital importance of making no change. Personal feelings are entirely ignored in reaching this conclusion.[14]

Jellicoe received the following reply from Churchill at 20:30 on 2 August:

I can give you 48 hours after joining Fleet. You must be ready then.

In reply Jellicoe cabled to first Churchill, then Battenberg at 23:30 the same evening:

Yours of second. Can only reply am certain step contemplated is most dangerous beg that it may not be carried out. Am perfectly willing to act on board Fleet Flagship as assistant if desired to be in direct communication.
Hard to believe it is realised what grave difficulties change Commander-in-Chief involves at this moment. Do not forget also long experience of command of Commander-in-Chief.

This was followed by another telegram from Scapa Flow to both the First Lord and First Sea Lord at 09:15 the following morning, 3 August:

Quite impossible to be ready such short notice. Feel it is my duty to warn you emphatically that you court disaster if you carry out intention of changing before I have thorough grip of Fleet and situation. I am sure Hamilton, Madden, or any Admiral recently in Home Fleet will be of my opinion.

And at 11:30 Jellicoe added:

Add to last message. Fleet is imbued with feelings of extreme admiration and loyalty for Commander-in-Chief. This is very strong factor.

Churchill replied finally at 00:45 in the morning of 4 August:

Expeditionary Force will not leave at present, and therefore Fleet movements connected with it will not immediately be required. I am sending Madden to-night to be at your side. I am telegraphing to the Commander-in-Chief directing him to transfer command to you at earliest moment suitable to the interests of the Service I rely on him and you to effect this change quickly and smoothly, personal feeling cannot count now only what is best for us all, you should consult with him frankly.[15]

Early that same morning Callaghan received the following signal from the Admiralty:

Their Lordships have determined upon, and H.M. The King has approved, the appointment of Sir John Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief. You are to strike your flag forthwith, embark in the Sappho or other cruiser, and come ashore at Queensferry, reporting yourself to the Admiralty thereafter at your earliest convenience. These orders are imperative.[16]

Jellicoe himself later described his reasons for sending the telegrams and the sequence of events leading to his taking command of the Grand Fleet:

In spite of the First Lord's reiterated opinion, my views remained unaltered, although it did occur to me that some anxiety might be felt that Sir George Callaghan's health would not stand the strain of commanding the fleet in the event of war. That, however, was a matter on which the Admiralty would be better informed than myself, and I had no hesitation in urging the opinions expressed in my successive telegrams.[17]

Jellioe's initial staff on arrival at Scapa as Second-in-Command of the Grand Fleet was composed of Captain Bentinck, a secretary, Commander Sydney Boyd-Richardson, Lieutenant-Commander Everard Hardman Jones as Signal Officers, and Lieutenant Herbert Fitzherbert as Flag Lieutenant.[18]

On 5 August, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Edward Seymour wrote:

My dear Jellicoe

You must not feel you have to answer this, as you are far too busy.

But I as your old friend cannot help writing, to congratulate you on your grand appointment; to tell you that I am sure the Admiralty have chosen the right man; and though needless, to say that you carry my best wishes & hopes for your success, in which no one will rejoice more than I shall.

I have never forgotten the extreme value you were to me in China. Your wife must feel proud of you. I will not trouble you with more than to say that I am

Your sincere friend

E H Seymour.[19]

The same day Admiral of the Fleet Sir William May also dropped a line:

I congratulate you most heartily on your appointment in supreme command of the Home Fleet. I feel sure the Admiralty have made the best choice & that you will emulate the best traditions of the Navy. This is a big job now is an opportune moment[.] We have a good superiority in ships & the one thing needful is for the Germans to come out & fight but I fear they will harass you with Destroyers, Submarines & Aircraft for a month or so. I shall be thankful when their Submarines are destroyed—
Good luck to you & may your efforts to annihilate the German Fleet be blessed with all success.
V. Sincerely Yours
W. H. May.[20]


  1. Quoted in Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. p. 188.
  2. Jellicoe Papers. I. p. 36.
  3. Quoted in Churchill. Winston S. Churchill. Companion Volume II Part 3. p. 1976.
  4. "The Portsmouth Command: Sir Hedworth Meux's Successor" (News). The Times. Wednesday, 17 June, 1914. Issue 40552, col C, p. 8.
  5. Quoted in Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. p. 188.
  6. Quoted in Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. p. 198.
  7. Gordon. The Rules of the Game. pp. 386-387.
  8. Barnett. The Swordbearers. p. 103.
  9. Reproduced in Barnett. The Swordbearers. p. 104.
  10. Quoted in Churchill. Winston S. Chuchill. Companion Volume II Part 3. p. 1992.
  11. Quoted in Churchill. Winston S. Chuchill. Companion Volume II Part 3. p. 1994.
  12. Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. p. 201.
  13. Goldrick. The King's Ships were at Sea. p. 21.
  14. Jellicoe Papers. p. 41.
  15. Jellicoe Papers. p. 42.
  16. Quoted in Goldrick. The King's Ships were at Sea. p. 22.
  17. Bacon. Earl Jellicoe. pp. 200-201.
  18. Commander Matthew Best's notebook entry for 2 August, 1914. Liddle Collection. University of Leeds. RNMN/BEST. Box 1. Volume I.
  19. Letter of 5 August, 1914. Jellicoe Papers. British Library. Add. MSS. 71556. f. 36.
  20. Add. MSS. 49035. f. 59.


  • Bacon, Admiral Sir R. H. (1936). The Life of John Rushworth Earl Jellicoe. London: Cassell and Company, Ltd. (on and
  • Barnett, Corelli (1964). The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War. New York: William Morrow and Company.
  • Goldrick, James (1984). The King's Ships Were At Sea: The War in the North Sea August 1914–February 1916. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-334-2.