Jellicoe Letter to the Admiralty, 30 October, 1914
This letter was sent by the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Acting Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe, to the Board of Admiralty on 30 October, 1914. Arthur Marder has called it an "historic letter", and Rear-Admiral James Goldrick has described it as "a document the contents of which were to have repercussions on the whole war at sea." Andrew Gordon claims that the Board approved Jellicoe's thinking "[perhaps] rather carelessly." Dr. Gordon evidently hadn't seen the actual letter nor the responses to it, which are reproduced below.
Jellicoe's letter, reproduced here, was received at the Admiralty on 31 October:
"Iron Duke", 30th October 1914.
The experience gained of German methods since the commencement of the war make it possible and very desirable to consider the manner in which these methods are likely to be made use of tactically in a fleet action.
2. The Germans have shown that they rely to a very great extent on submarines, mines, and torpedoes, and there can be no doubt whatever that they will endeavour to make the fullest use of these weapons in a fleet action, especially since they possess an actual superiority over us in these particular weapons.
3. It therefore becomes necessary to consider our own tactical methods in relation to these forms of attack.
4. In the first place, it is evident that the Germans cannot rely with certainty upon having their full complement of submarines and minelayers present in a fleet action, unless the battle is fought in waters selected by them, and in the southern area of the North Sea. Aircraft, also, could only be brought into action in this locality.
5. My object will therefore be to fight the fleet action in the northern portion of the North Sea, which position is incidentally nearer our own bases, giving our wounded ships a chance of reaching them, whilst it ensures the final destruction or capture of enemy wounded vessels, and greatly handicaps a night destroyer attac before or after a fleet action. The northern area is also favourable to a concentration of our cruisers and torpedo craft with the Battle Fleet; such concentration on the part of the enemy being always possible, since he will choose a time for coming out when all his ships are coaled and ready in all respects to fight.
6. Owing to the necessity that exists for keeping our cruisers at sea, it is probable that many will be short of coal when the opportunity for a fleet action arises, and they might be unable to move far to the southward for this reason.
7. The presence of a large force of cruisers is most necessary for observation and for screening the Battle Fleet so that the latter may be manœuvred into any desired position behind the cruiser screen. This is a strong additional reason for fighting in the northern area.
8. Secondly, it is necessary to consider what may be termed the tactics of the actual battlefield.
The German submarines, if worked as is expected with the Battle Fleet, can be used in one of two ways:
- (a) With the cruisers, or possibly with the destroyers.
- (b) With the Battle Fleet.
In the first case the submarines would probably be led by the cruisers to a position favourable for attacking our Battle Fleet as it advanced to deploy, and in the second case they might be kept in a position in rear, or to the flank, of the enemy's battle fleet, which would move in the direction required to draw our own fleet into contact with the submarines.
9. The first move at (a) should be defeated by our own cruisers, provided we have a sufficient number present, as they should be able to force the enemy's cruisers to action at a speed which would interfere with submarine tactics.
The cruisers must, however, have destroyers in company to assist in dealing with the submarines, and should be well in advance of the Battle Fleet; hence the necessity for numbers.
10. The second move at (b) can be countered by a judicious handling of our Battle Fleet, but may, and probably will, involve a refusal to comply with the enemy's tactics by moving in the invited direction. If, for instance, the enemy Battle Fleet were to turn away from an advancing fleet, I should assume that the intention was to lead us over mines and submarines, and should decline to be so drawn.
11. I desire particularly to draw the attention of their Lordships to this point, since it may be deemed a refusal of battle, and, indeed, might possibly result in failure to bring the enemy to action as soon is expected and hoped.
12. Such a result would be absolutely repugnant to the feelings of all British naval officers and men, but with new and untried methods of warfare new tactics must be devised to meet them. I feel that such tactics, if not understood, may bring odium upon me, but so long as I have the confidence of their Lordships I intend to pursue what is, in my considered opinion, the proper course to defeat and annihilate the enemy Battle Fleet, without regard to uninstructed opinion or criticism.
13. The situtation is a difficult one. It is quite within the bounds of possibility that half of our Battle Fleet might be disabled by underwater attack before the guns opened fire at all, if a false move is made, and I feel that I must constantly bear in mind the great possibility of such attack and to be prepared tactically to prevent its success.
14. The safeguard against submarines will consist in moving the Battle Fleet at very high speed to a flank before deployment takes place or the gun action commences.
This will take us off the ground on which the enemy desires to fight, but it may, of course, result in his refusal to follow me.
If the Battle Fleets remain within sight of one another, though not near the original area, the limited submerged radius of action and speed of the submarines will prevent the submarines from following without coming to the surface, and I should feel that after an interval of high-speed manœuvring, I could safely close.
15. The object of this letter is to place my views before their Lordships, and to direct their attention to the alterations in preconceived ideas of battle tactics which are forced upon us by the anticipated appearance in a fleet action of submarines and minelayers.
16. There can be no doubt that the fullest use will also be made by the enemy of surface torpedo craft.
This point has been referred to in previous letters to their Lordships, and, so long as the whole of the First Fleet flotillas are with the Fleet, the hostile destroyers will successfully be countered and engaged.
The necessity for attaching some destroyers to cruiser squadrons, alluded to in paragraph 9, emphasises the necessity for the junction of the 1st and 3rd Flotillas with the Fleet before a fleet action takes place.
17. It will, however be very desirable that all available ships and torpedo craft should be ordered to the position of the fleet action as soon as it is known to be imminent, as the presence of even Third Fleet Vessels after the action or towards its conclusion, may prove of great assistance in rendering the victory shattering and complete.
The Channel Fleet should be accompanied by as many destroyers, drawn from the Dover or Coast patrols, as can be spared.
I trust that their Lordships will give the necessary orders on receipt of information from me of an impending fleet action.
18. In the event of a fleet action being imminent, or, indeed, as soon as the High Seas Fleet is known to be moving northward, it is most desirable that a considerable number of our oversea submarines should proceed towards the fleet, getting first on to the line between the Germans and Heligoland in order to intercept them when returning. The German Fleet would probably arrange its movements so as to pass Heligoland at dusk when coming out and at dawn when returning, in order to minimise submarine risk. The opportunity for submarine attack in the Heligoland Bight would not therefore be great, and from four to six submarines would be the greatest number that could be usefully employed there. The remainder, accompanied by one or two light cruisers, taken, if necessary, from the Dover Patrol, should work up towards the position of the Fleet, the light cruisers keeping in wireless touch with me.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
[Signed] J. R. Jellicoe
5. Each Fleet will endeavour to obtain the most desirable battle field.
The German Fleet when it comes out may have another objective than to meet our Fleet in Battle which may compel our Fleet to seek a battle further South than the CinC would prefer.
10. Fully concur.
16. No reliance can be placed on 1st and 3rd Flotillas arriving in time.
En route they may be forced to attack similar vessels, or to prevent transports landing troops &c.
[Signed] F C D Sturdee
Point 12: Underlined; "but with new and untried methods of warfare new tactics must be devised to meet them." Noted: "Fully concur. F. 1/11/14." Underlined; "so long as I have the complete confidence of their Lordships." Noted: "Which of course he will have. F. 1/11/14."
Point 14: Highlighted; "The safeguard against submarines will consist in moving the Battle Fleet at very high speed to a flank before deployment takes place or the gun action commences." Noted: "Concur. F."
Point 17: Underlined; "I trust that Their Lordships will give the necessary orders on receipt of information from me of an impending fleet action." Noted: "Concur. F. 1/11/14."
Point 10, perhaps the most important part of the letter, was underlined in pencil at "and should decline to be so drawn," and an x in red placed next to it. Red ink was used by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
On 1 November Fisher minuted: "This is a very important paper. I suggest our confidence and approval should be conveyed tomorrow personally to Sir J. Jellicoe as well as by letter and all necessary action taken. F. 1/11/14." Churchill initialled his assent on 2 November.
The Admiralty's response was sent on 7 November and marked as received in Iron Duke on 9 November. Jellicoe sent it to the Manager of the National Provincial Bank for custody by special messenger in the Admiralty Bag on 9 December.
7th November 1914.
I have laid before My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 30th ultimo, No. 339/H.F. 0034, and I am commanded by them to inform you that they approve your views, as stated therein, and desire to assure you of their full confidence in your contemplated conduct of the Fleet in action.
2. My Lords will, as desired, give orders for all available Ships and Torpedo Craft to proceed to the position of the Fleet Action on learning from you that it is imminent.
I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,
[Signed]W. Graham Greene
Sir Arthur K. Wilson's Response
There are great practical difficulties in bringing submarines into effective action with the fleet at such a distance from their base as the Northern part of the North Sea. They may accompany the fleet on the surface until the enemy is sighted, but they must dive before they come under fire, and then will almost certainly be left behind.
If the German fleet comes out at all, it will probably be for some definite object. Possible objects are:-
(1) To cover a raid or invasion.
(2) To get fast cruisers or mercantile auxiliaries to sea to prey on commerce.
(3) To intercept some weak force of ours of whose position they have obtained information.
(4) A mere demonstration intended to encourage their own people and to scare us into keeping more troops at home.
The chance of our getting any information of their position at sea seems to be very small.
If they are covering a raid, the first we shall hear will be that the enemy is on the coast. In the other cases we they will probably have practically accomplished their object before we hear anything about it.
If their fast cruisers or mercantile auxiliaries break out North of the Shetlands, we may possibly hear of their having done so from our Northern patrols, but even that is very doubtful. it is very unlikely that we should be able to stop them.
There seems to be very little chance of bringing on a general engagement unless the Germans think they are strong enough to go off Scapa Flow and deliberately challenge our fleet, or unless we can threaten such injury to them on their own coast as to compel them to come out to beat us off. At present it seems improbable that either of these conditions will occur.
The dream of most Naval Officers seems to be a great sea fight in which, by some means or other, we are to be enabled to collect all our forces together and crush the Germans at one blow. This, however, is only a dream. What we have to do is to dispose our forces together and prevent the Germans from doing us more injury than we can possibly help, and never to miss a good opportunity of injuring them.
It is above all important to dispose the fleet so that the greatest possible number of troops may be spared for the front, and this makes some dispersion of the fleet absolutely necessary.
If there is any fault in our present dispositions in Home waters, it is that too large a proportion of light cruisers and destroyers have been allocated for service with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.
The proposals of the Commander-in-Chief in paragraphs 16 and 17, that the 1st and 3rd Flotillas and all available ships and torpedo craft should be ordered to the position of the fleet action, should not be complied with: first, because there would be no possible chance of their arriving on the scene till many hours after the action was over; and, secondly, because the object of the German Main Fleet in courting an engagement would probably be to enable a landing to effected on the coast.
If the Southern force is sent away from the coast at all, it should be to intercept the beaten enemy on his return to Heligoland Bight.
Sir Henry B. Jackson's Response
On 18 September, 1916, Fisher's successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry B. Jackson, wrote a note to Sturdee's successor as Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Acting Vice-Admiral Sir Henry F. Oliver:
This letter seems to have been stowed away, as I have never seen it till yesterday.
Many of the conclusions still hold good, & in the next plan of operations now being drawn up reference should be made to this letter & to the general approval of T.L. given.
Dover force is now, however, entirely changed.
18/9/16. [Initialled] H.B.J.
- Marder. II. p. 75.
- Goldrick. p. 166.
- Gordon. p. 21.
- ADM 137/995. ff. 133-135.
- Greene to Jellicoe. Letter of 7 November, 1914. Jellicoe Papers. British Library. Add. MSS. 49012. f. 29.
- Notation on copy, Greene to Jellicoe. Letter of 7 November, 1914. Jellicoe Papers. British Library. Add. MSS. 49012. f. 30.
- "Remarks on CinC's Letter of 30th Oct. 14 No. 339/HF0034." ADM 137/995. ff. 140-142.
- ADM 137/995. f. 146.
- 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.
- Gordon, Andrew (2005). The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. London: John Murray (Publishers). ISBN 0719561310. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Marder, Arthur Jacob (1965). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919: The War Years : To the Eve of Jutland.. Volume II. London: Oxford University Press.