Lord Fisher's Critics in the February Number

From The Dreadnought Project
Jump to: navigation, search

Lord Fisher's Critics in the February Number is an article written by Admiral Frederic Charles Dreyer which appeared in the May 1930 issue of The Naval Review. (Vol. XVIII. No. 2.)


"La Critique est aisée. L'Art est difficile."

THERE is a story told of Lord Balfour on the occasion of his visit to America in the Spring of 1917, when the U.S.A. came into the Great War. It is said that some prominent Americans were talking to him and one of them said something to the effect that he and others had been over to England several times during the War. They realised that England was the mainspring of the Allied cause, not only in sea power and wealth, but in energy and determination to see the war through to a victorious end. "But when we go about in your country, Mr. Balfour," he continued, "and are shown in the midst of many war activities the various great works which have been converted to manufacture implements of war, and are filled with admiration for the initiative and resource displayed, we are sometimes told that the organization is not what it should be, and some remark is often made to the effect that the Germans are such wonderful organizers, and so thorough-say! Mr. Balfour what does this attitude of mind mean?"

Mr. Balfour, as he then was, is said to have replied "England no doubt will win the War and then spend years in trying to prove that she lost it."

I think this is a most instructive remark and that in our desire not to claim that we accomplished more than we did, we should take care not to misread the lessons of the War. We are, on the other hand, of course, right to probe and analyse the history of events, with a view to profiting by experience and guarding against the repetition, in any future war, of the mistakes made in the Great War and in the years of preparation in the pre War days. During both these periods Lord Fisher played a very prominent part in naval affairs.

In examining his achievement, I venture to suggest that we should try to ascertain what results he obtained and not go too much into detail. We are all very imperfect and no one can stand examination under a magnifying glass without his imperfections becoming very apparent. In my opinion, Lord Fisher's achievement can be summed up in a few words by saying that he speeded things up and saved us some 5 or 6 years.

Without him the Service doubtless would have accomplished most or all he did, but at a much slower rate, though possibly in some directions more efficiently. He had, however, the genius to realise that no time should be lost and when he got into power he proceeded to rush things.

He was determined to brook no delay and swept anyone aside who tried to check his pace, or who he thought was doing so. No doubt many were bruised and hurt in the process and some have not forgiven him. I hope Admiral Sir William Henderson will not think I am taking a liberty if I say that I read with the greatest interest his letter of 29th January, 1887, to the President of the R.N. College, Greenwich, which is reproduced in his review of Admiral Bacon's Life of Lord Fisher on pp. 189-202 of THE NAVAL REVIEW of February, 1930. This letter submitted most valuable suggestions for instruction in Naval Tactics and Strategy at the R.N. College, Greenwich, and it is illuminating to read how slowly matters moved in putting his suggestions into effect.

A War Course was finally started at Greenwich in 1900. Admiral Sir William Henderson himself remarks a propos of this: "the incident shows how long it takes to bring matters to a head in the Navy." (the italics are mine.)

Now this was, to my mind, exactly what Lord Fisher realized and he also saw thait the European situation showed that in a few years from the date of his becoming First Sea Lord we should probably be forced to fight for the existence of the Empire.

It is easy to criticise his methods, but we should be thankful that the Navy possessed this man of destiny who forced the pace. An exceptional situation was dealt with by an exceptional man. No doubt he made mistakes but there is some apt saying of Napoleon's to the effect that the man who never made a mistake never achieved anything. I think Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon has accomplished with great skill the very difficult task of writing the Life of Lord Fisher and giving us a picture of this extraordinary man and the demoniacal energy, inspired by his zeal for the Service and the Country with which he worked.

I do not propose to take up space bv enumerating Lord Fisher's activities and achievements as that has already been done by Admiral Bacon, but I feel it will not be out of place to make some remarks with regard to the Review of the latter's Life of Lord Fisher, which "Convectus" has contributed to in the February, 1930 issue of THE NAVAL REVIEW.

I think it will be agreed that amongst the points which "Convectus" endeavours to make, the following are the more important:-

(a) That Lord Fisher did not promote the Study of War and the investigation of Tactical and Strategical Problems.

This is a hard saying about the man who as C.-in-C. in the Mediterranean 1899-1902, carried out inter alia:-

P.Z. battle tactics.

Long range battle firings.

Long distance high speed steaming trials.

Gave war lectures and prizes for War Essays, and also pressed the First Lord in 1901 to establish a War College (p. 153 of Admiral Bacon's "Life of Lord Fisher").

(b) Owing to lack of war study naval officers did not realise until the middle of 1917 that the Convoy System which had been triumphantly in use from the beginning of the War for the protection of transports and military supplies was obviously the counter for our mercantile marine against the S/M. I hope I shall not be thought discourteous, if I say that this is easy to announce after the event. Before the Germans started their unrestricted S/M campaign in 1917 we had successfully used escorted convoys to guard against attack by enemy surface vessels.

It was extremely doubtful at the beginning of 1917 as to whether :- (i.) Convoys for our merchant service would be a successful counter to the enemy S/M's. Many experienced officers with war experience afloat held strong views against the proposal. (ii.) Whether merchant ship convoys were a practicable proposition from the ship handling and manoeuvring point of view. The merchant service captains consulted thought not. Until the U.S.A. came into the War we could not provide sufficient escorts for convoys. The experiment however was tried of putting the French coal trade from this country into convoy in January, 1917, and when this was found to be successful we were able with the help of U.S.A. men-of-war escorts to put our merchant service into convoy. It all sounds so simple and obvious now. People are also liable to forget that the capabilities of S/M's were little known when war broke out in 1914.

The Germans, who had had a Naval Staff since 1872, did not even have anti-submarine nets to protect their harbour mouths until 6 months after the declaration of War (vide "Der Krieg Zur See").

(c) The gunnery equipment of our Dreadnought battle ships was unable to deal with firing when under helm and they could therefore not pursue an enemy and engage him, while dodging his torpedoes. This prevented Lord Jellicoe from turning towards the German battle fleet at Jutland at 7.23 p.m. (G.M.T.) when the German destroyers were advancing to carry out Scheer's signal for all destroyers to attack.

I cannot imagine where "Convectus" can have got this idea from.

I have had long and varied experience of ordnance and gunnery and had the great honour of commanding the fleet flagship Iron Duke in the Battle of Jutland. There is not even a vestige of support for Convectus's suggestion at (c) above. The Fire Control Tables in our 13.5" and 15" gun battleships at Jutland in 1916 were connected electrically to the gyrocompasses and enabled the operators to hold the range well during quite large alterations of course. This apparatus still remains in these ships in the year of grace 1930, and works very well. Had Lord Jellicoe, who was not aware that the German battle fleet had turned away behind its smoke screen, turned our main battle fleet at 7.23 p.m. towards the enemy destroyers, we should have had between 100 and 200 torpedoes fired at long ranges, passing in many directions through our battle fleet and we would probably have lost some 6 or more battleships. The enemy battle fleet were invisible behind a thick smoke screen, so we could not have fired at them-other than unaimed rounds into the smoke-nor could we have overtaken them before dark. "Convectus" will not find many naval officers with experience of handling squadrons of heavy ships and their armaments who will support him in thinking that under the conditions existing and with no bulges to our ships, our main fleet should have steamed into the torpedoes at 7.23 p.m. at Jutland. In his official report Scheer stated that at this time his intention was "to deal the enemy a second blow by advancing regardless of consequences and to bring all the destroyers to attack. " This was the great concerted tactical stroke on which Tirpitz and all the German leaders counted for victory. On 11th October, 1914, Tirpitz, writing to von Pohl, then Chief of Naval Staff, said : " If we should succeed, however, in launching a destroyer attack against any considerable portion of the British fleet, either by day or night, I believe we should accomplish great things." (Vide "Der Krieg Zur See.") Para. 289 of the German destroyer orders stated that "the enemy will turn away" from such attack and that the destroyers therefore must get close in before firing their torpedoes. Lord Jellicoe turned away and countered the German destroyer attack with gunfire from our battle fleet, and the counter attack with the gunfire of light cruisers and destroyers. As a result the German destroyers trying to close our battle fleet were beaten off and withdrew after firing 32 torpedoes out of 224 torpedoes available. The Great German Jiu Jitsu tactic had failed and their battle cruisers were shattered.

On p. 179 "Convectus" states :- "In 'The Grand Fleet,' pp. 348, etc., and diagram II., Lord Jellicoe explained why the battle fleet deployed on the port and not on the starboard wing column. Had the latter course been adopted," he said, "an interval of at least four minutes would elapse between each division coming under fire astern of the 6th Division, and a further interval before the guns could be directed on to the ships selected, and that fire become effective." He further explains this by saying that " our own gun fire, owing to the large alterations of course and consequent difficulty of obtaining correct fire control data, would be . . . . ineffective." I looked up the quotation and found it on Diagram 11. and that "Convectus's" four dots before the last word "ineffective" represent the single word "correspondingly," i.e., Lord Jellicoe's sentence ends with the words :- "would be correspondingly ineffective." Everyone with practical experience of range taking in misty weather with the ship under helm will agree with Lord Jellicoe. I cannot understand why "Convectus" omitted the important word "correspondingly. "

In a note at the foot of p. 15 of Vol IV. of "Naval Operations" the Grand Fleet is credited with 70 hits on the German battle cruisers alone (50 made by our main fleet, 10 by the 5th B.S., and 10 by our battle cruisers. I have got the book available to check this). It was most unfortunate that owing to a technical blunder our armour piercing shells broke up on oblique impact on armour. In October, 1910, the D.N.O. had put the "requirements" for A.P.C. shell (just as our Naval Staff would do nowadays to the Controller) to the Ordnance Committee or Board-namely to carry their bursters through the plate at oblique impact and burst beyond it.

The 1920 lb. 15" A.P.C. shell we used at Jutland would break up on a 6" K.C. plate at 20° to the normal at about 16,000 yards. The new type 15" A.P.C. shell, of which 12,000 (12" and above) filled with insensitive bursters and fitted with delay action fuses were in the shell rooms of the Grand Fleet in October, 1918, would carry their bursters through 10" and 12" K.C. plates under the above conditions and burst 20 to 30 feet beyond.

Our inefficient A.P.C. shell at Jutland lost us the offensive advantage of carrying heavier guns than the enemy, while we suffered the accepted disadvantage of our thinner armour.

The hits which we made at Jutland as a result of tactical advantage and gunnery skill would, with efficient A.P.C. shell such as we had in 1918, have sunk some 6 or more German capital ships.

As it was, the result of the Battle of Jutland was that Germany continued to starve and we continued to pour troops and munitions of war across the bows of the High Seas Fleet into France-to the ultimate ruin of Germany. The High Seas Fleet was afraid to face another Jutland, in which mist and darkness had enabled them to run away. Space will only allow me to say a few words with regard to "Convectus's" remarks on p. 179.

(a) Re ships which could not bombard effectively off the Dardanelles when "circling." As these ships had no directors (except "Q.E.") and allowing for rangefinding difficulties and turrets training from one side to the other, I can understand their difficulties quite apart from range clocks. (b) Re delays in our firing during the Falkland battle, there was great interference by funnel smoke and ships had not directors completed.

"A.C.D." on pp. 181 to 189 of THE NAVAL REVIEW of February, 1930, also reviews Admiral Bacon's book. With regard to his reference to Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot on p. 185 thereof, I was Flag Captain to the latter in Orion when in the winter of 1914, Lord Fisher became First Sea Lord.

Sir Robert Arbuthnot expressed to me great pleasure and satisfaction with this appointment.

I am of opinion that Lord Fisher rendered great service to the country in saving us some vital 5 or 6 years. I have written this brief article because I feel impelled to pay a tribute to his memory.


Blackheath. 28th February, 1930. Vice Admiral.