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WITH THE BATTLECRUISERS
Arcadia Ebooks 2016
Copyright © 1921 Filson Young
With the Battle Cruisers
THOSE WHO DIED
AND THOSE WHO LIVE
THIS book is not a chapter of naval history. It is, however, a study of naval life in war from which the material for a chapter in naval history may some day be derived. The Navy and its life must remain to a great extent terraincognita to the public that owes so much to it; and it is as much due to the public as to the Navy that an explorer like myself should give some account of his adventures.
Although the book covers so short a period of the North Sea warfare the period is vital in that it embraces the discovery of nearly all our naval shortcomings, and the initiation of the means taken to overcome them. The point of view — that of the spearhead of the British Naval forces — necessarily includes a wide angle of outlook, in which the detail of things must diminish in proportion as they recede from the view-point. But just as one full and intimate picture of the life of one ship for one month would give the reader a more human insight into the Navy than a general survey of the whole Fleet for four years, so the narrative of an eye-witness whose place was for six months on the very point of that bright spearhead should have a value apart from, and supplementary to, the official and technical histories which are being compiled. My aim in this narrative has been to draw as few conclusions myself, and to present as much material from which others may draw them, as is humanly possible.
As the Admiralty in its wisdom has refused1 me access to documents by which I might verify my facts, the sources from which that material is drawn are limited to (1) my own observation and memory, which are trained for such a purpose; (2) the few notes and records of fact, valueless to an enemy but important to us, that I have been able to preserve; and (3) the published works of officers high in English and German commands. No one but myself is responsible either for my facts or my deductions; but having waited for five years after leaving the Navy and for two years after the end of the war before putting pen to paper, I shall not, I hope, be accused of rushing into print with a hasty or ill-considered record of my impressions.
My book is written primarily for the public and not for the Naval Officer; but I know him well enough to be sure that he, who will best understand the difficulties encountered in writing this book, will most generously forgive its defects. In my brief temporary membership of the “band of brothers” I came to hold the brotherhood as permanent.
LONDON, March, 1921.
OF the half-great men, or great half-men, of our time, in whom lack of scruple in the pursuit of large ends is held to be a positive virtue, Lord Fisher was probably as near the whole man as any; and this story may as well begin with him, since it was through talking with him that I came in the years before the war to understand where the centres of effort and of resistance would be when the hurricane fell upon Europe. No man of our time, with the possible exception of Lord Haldane, has been so inaccurately measured as Lord Fisher; by the Navy, because they saw in his methods a grave disloyalty to certain deeply cherished standards; by the public, because he has been chiefly presented to them by a Press which, according to its spectacles, saw in him either an angel or a villain. He was neither. He was a simple and guileful man, cast in a very unusual mould, of which the only other product I have seen was that minor masterpiece of simplicity and cunning, the late President Kruger. Both were essentially simple men, and the element of greatness in both rested on that. Both were inspired by a profound patriotism — the one for the smallest, the other for the greatest, of modern States; in both the simplicity of character was expressed in a brain convoluted and patterned with the oblique philosophy of the Old Testament; both were strong and fearless, and both were unscrupulous in their methods of attaining great ends. Kruger with his theory of the tortoise putting out its head, Fisher with his obsession (expounded to me on one of the blackest days of the war) of the armadillo attracting the ants — as applied to a battle cruiser in the Atlantic and enemy cruisers — here was the same kind of simple guile, dangerously attractive to the unprofessional, above all to the literary, mind. Both were tried in the test of war, and both had to look for justice beyond the judgment of their contemporaries. Beyond that point it is not worth while here to pursue the comparison; but the few others living who had personal experience of the two men may find it interesting and illuminating.
I fell under the old man’s spell on an autumn evening when, arriving at Kilverstone to spend the week-end with him, the car was stopped at the entrance gates by the sturdy, impressive old figure of my host, who haled me forth of the car and had me deep in talk of the Navy before we had reached the house. My chief and lasting impression of that week-end was of a personality passionately inspired with one idea and purpose; a monomaniac, if you will, for whom the universe was one storm cloud; who had no thoughts of peace, or the ends for which war is waged, but only of war itself and the preparation of the British Navy to take the decisive and destructive role in that war. This war cloud was then no reality to me, and I marvelled that so strong and able a mind should be so completely obsessed by it. But I learned to think differently, and, like so many others with whose temperament such preoccupations were incompatible, to remember with a shudder the mental indifference that had made me turn my face from the writing on the wall. In those long monologues, with their background of garden pleasaunce or Norfolk stubble, I learned the secret of this lonely life spent so mysteriously and consistently in the pursuit of one aim; mysteriously, because though all his talk was of the sea and sea power, I never could associate Lord Fisher in my mind with the sea, or think of him as a sailor, or imagine him on the quarter-deck or signal bridge. The slow, ponderous personality, uttering itself in aphorisms laboriously quarried from the stuff of solitary thought; the simple, childlike modesty that pretended to no knowledge on many a subject apparently indispensable to his purpose; the equally childlike pride in and reliance on the results of his own experience, meditation and original thought; the very winning and flattering appearance of deference to what one thought or said oneself — these seemed more in accordance with the character of a prophet or apostle than of a man of action. If it was true (as I have heard) that even in his sea days he was no tactician, and but a poor handler of a squadron, it was because ships and squadrons were too small for him; he thought in fleets and in seas, and where another man might think of firing a salvo he would want to launch a division. It is characteristic of this large view that the only charts I ever saw in his room at the Admiralty were of the smallest available scale to the mile, and if they did not include an ocean or a sea or two were of no use to him.
He was at that time presiding over the Royal Commission on Oil Fuel, and had evolved, and would expound with pride in conversation, the remarkable theory that England was miraculously favoured by Providence in having no natural supply of oil. The seas were our oil reservoir and oiling station; there were umpteen millions of tons of oil fuel always in transit on the seas; the wireless charts showed the daily position of every tanker; and all the warship had to do in war-time was to intercept the nearest oilship, fill her bunkers and proceed refreshed. It did not at all work out like that in the event; but the theory was characteristic of a mind that foresaw developments with wonderful precision, and in material matters made the right deductions, but often failed to foresee the ‘actual conditions in which the developments would take place. His vision was of the smokeless, funnel-less and therefore practically invisible warship; and though he dated the war with absolute accuracy, he did not foresee that the use of smoke as a screen would be a greater feature in tactical warfare than the absence of it as a tell-tale.
But if there was nothing of the conventional sailor about him, and if he lacked the breezy charm of his arch-detractor, Lord Charles Beresford, there could be no doubt that he was a master of his subject, and for that reason, if for no other, a delight to listen to. Naturally he was obsessed with a sense of the tremendous effort of his own years at the Admiralty, and with doubts as to his successors’ worthiness of their heritage. No man who had toiled as he had toiled, and fought as he had fought, could think lightly of the toil or the warfare. Thus his conversation was largely retrospective; things that he had said, things that he had done, stood out like milestones on the way, and marked for him the history of the modern Navy. I remember his showing me at Kilverstone the bound volumes of his despatches to the Admiralty when he was Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean — all printed on foolscap on board ship, and set up by a man specially trained in a graduated system of type-setting, in which the damns and other expletives were set in various grades of display type, and in three colours of ink, according to the emphasis required by the context. I don’t know what the Board of the time thought of these highly unconventional despatches, but the days of their arrival must have provided their Lordships, with some highly entertaining reading. I hope they will be published some day.
At that time Winston Churchill had just entered on his career as First Lord of the Admiralty — a period in which, although it ended in clouds, he rendered his country greater service than he has achieved in any other office. On the few occasions when I saw him then he was always interesting and inspiring on the subject of his trust, and obviously found the handling of it the greatest of his many adventures. And it was through him one day in 1912 that I first met the third and most remarkable of the three men who were to exercise so far-reaching an influence on our naval destinies, and whose actual work in war I was to see so close at hand. We had been discussing some subject, and Winston said: “But the man who can tell you all about that is my Naval Secretary.” And opening a door at the end of his room he took me in and introduced me to Admiral Beatty.
I had been accustomed to regard Admirals as very senior and indeed venerable beings, those whom I had known being mostly of great age, and retired, living amid a kind of property background of spy-glasses, boat-cloaks and sea rime. I was therefore the less prepared for the appearance of the man, young, distinguished-looking indeed, but more with the distinction of Pall Mall than of Plymouth Hoe, who turned to greet me. Youth and high physical training were written all over the figure and shone in the clear eyes; but there was something in the heavy lines of the face (they are heavier to-day) that seemed to contradict the sense of youth, and, like the deep voice, gave an impression of weight and gravity to a personality that I perceived at once to be remarkable. The meeting proved to be one with much of destiny in it for me; and (what is not always true of such moments) I felt and was sure of it at the time. Here was the man for whom, in a dim but persistent way, one had been looking as a sea-leader; here surely was the realization of one’s dream of the fighting sailor. It was not until after months of friendly intercourse that I began to know what good ground I had for that intuition, and not until after years of trial that it was to be made clear to the world; but I am glad to think that it was clear to me in that dim room at the Admiralty nine years ago, and that in those years my certainty of it never wavered. I little thought then that I should wear the uniform of his service and stand beside him in battle; but I made up my mind that his was the career to be watched and studied, and his the mind from which one could accept the truth amid the conflicting voices then engaged in debating the essentials of naval supremacy. Here, then, was the ideal type for which Lord Fisher in our conversations had so often sighed; and I was secretly disappointed when, on my mentioning Fisher’s name, Beatty merely smiled. And I was still more crestfallen when, a few days later, I spoke of Beatty enthusiastically to Lord Fisher, he gave me a blank, sour look and said: “Really? Never met him.”
I did not know the Navy as well in those days as I know it now, or I would have been less surprised than I was that the obviously ablest men in control of naval affairs were far from seeing eye to eye with one another, and even (what was more remarkable) neglected to make any real study of one another’s aims and potentialities. Naval thought, where it existed, was divided into camps, each one regarding victory over the others as essential to victory over the Germans. Thus Lord Charles Beresford, whose best work in his retirement was his untiring public advocacy of naval efficiency, gave one in private a most alarming impression that the Navy was already practically in German control; and one of his mildest views of Lord Fisher was that he was a madman who, on the eve of war, had deliberately scrapped the majority of our cruisers. Winston Churchill was at one time probably one of the men most disliked by the Navy at large; but when one tried to discuss his administration seriously, one was told stories of his bad manners: as, for example, of his going on board a ship, entering the wardroom, ringing the bell and sending for the Commander — a solecism the gravity of which one must have lived in a wardroom to appreciate. And yet, one felt, it was not quite an argument against his efficiency as an administrator. But all the naval officer saw was a man to whose power our sacred naval traditions were committed, and who apparently knew or cared so little for the smallest of them that the greatest might well be in peril at his hands. The anti-Churchill camp was a very strong one. He, on the other hand, seemed to regard Lord Fisher as a dangerous genius to be caught, chained, tamed, and made careful use of; Lord Fisher regarded him (I am speaking of the two years before the war) as a politician to be fought or flattered, made or destroyed, according to his degree of adaptability to the great purpose. Sir Percy Scott was regarded either as the fountain of truth or as a self-advertising madman. All of them regarded the principal non-official students of naval affairs as tiresome meddlers in a scheme of things that they could not be expected to understand; if they could be enlisted in any particular camp, well and good; otherwise they were dismissed with lofty contempt. Mr. Arthur Pollen was looked upon, not as a student and inventor who had proved his value to a Navy that should know how to use him, but as a man who was disappointed because some of his inventions (the principle of which was hastily adopted when experience confirmed his foresight) were not employed. All of his criticisms were supposed to be inspired by bitterness — a most childish and costly mistake. Commander Bellairs was merely a naval partisan. J. L. Garvin, whom personally I found the wisest and most inspiring, as well as the best informed, of all, was regarded as a tragic crier of “Wolf!” Viscount Curzon was supposed to be trying to make a name for himself by mischievous questions in the House; he also has been abundantly justified. H. W. Wilson, who is probably one of the best informed men in England on naval development over the whole world, was regarded (because he had once been author of a standard work called “Ironclads in Action”) either as a naval expert on the period of the Flood or of Tarshish, or, because he wrote in the DailyMail, as a dangerous young chip of that scarcely older block that could never be relied upon to keep its heavy guns trained on one naval camp at a time. Yet all these laymen were far more right than the professionals in power.
But the mark of Lord Fisher was, for good or ill, stamped on the material of the Navy; the Lion, the latest development of his maxim, “Speed is armour,” had lately been commissioned, and was at the head of the new Battle Cruiser Squadron; Admiral Jellicoe, the predestined commander of Lord Fisher’s choice, had for years been preparing and fashioning at the Admiralty the weapon which he would have to wield in war. The high commands were all more or less settled, with the exception of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, the formation of which had just been completed by Sir Lewis Bayley, its first admiral. It is to Winston Churchill’s credit that, in spite of murmurings and heart-burnings, he handed this magnificent arm, the super-cavalry of the sea, to the youngest admiral on the list (the last to be entitled to it by the laws of seniority) because he believed that Beatty was the man who would use it best. And it is interesting to note that of the three great naval reputations made in the war — those of Beatty, Tyrwhitt and Keyes — none of them was a Fisher man, or indeed belonged to any camp; all had passed bad examinations and done as little office work as possible, and none was predestined or trained by the Admiralty for the work he was to do. And it is proof of the lamentable fact that the Admiralty was too deeply absorbed in administering the Navy to think of preparing it for fighting, that when Beatty took the Battle Cruiser Squadron to sea in the spring of 1913 for training, he found that there were no instructions from the Admiralty as to what it was to be trained for, no policy formed as to the nature of its employment in the Fleet. No one had thought of that, and Sir Lewis Bayley’s period of command was too short to permit of his remedying the defect.
There could be no clearer example of the deplorable lack of a Staff, a mere thinking department, to think out even the general lines on which the weapons so laboriously prepared were to be used. The weapons were there, in a high state of edge and polish, thanks largely to Lord Fisher and to the stuff and spirit of the Navy itself; but the most formidable weapon of all, the collective, co-ordinating brain, was simply not in existence. Brains were at a discount both in the Navy and the Admiralty, as they are in every organization of our national life; officers who made any real study of war from the point of view of Staff work were regarded as cranks or lunatics, hunters of soft jobs; and the gin-and-bitters school were quite content to be left to the guidance of their splendid but not always highly trained instincts. As it had been at the beginning, so it would be now; only let us sight the enemy, and the rest would follow. There was no Staff organization to think out and prepare the gallant men for the set of facts with which they would be confronted, or to warn them that “sighting the enemy” would be a privilege reserved for very few of them, and that the main part of their work would have to be done far out of sight of an enemy. For the individual officer, discovering or fearing some defect in design of the weapon, there was no untrammelled technical Staff to whom his criticism could be immediately referred and dispassionately investigated. If he was not shut up by his immediate senior, if he risked ridicule or unpopularity, there was nothing for it but a laborious thrusting up of his ideas through one superincumbent rank after another until they emerged at the top to receive the frigid snub which it is the pride of the Permanent Official at all times to administer, and which the Mandarin known as the Secretary of the Admiralty had brought to a kind of desolate perfection. Thousands of the best men that England ever produced perished in the North Sea uselessly and needlessly because the Admiralty in 1914 had not grasped the simple truth that there is no weapon in the world which is not the more deadly for having brains behind it. But to talk of “brains” in all but a small section of the Navy was, I really believe, considered indelicate; the word smacked of the slaughter-house rather than of the battlefield; and Intelligence was regarded as a thing to be put in pigeon-holes rather than as a spirit informing the minds of men.
I will give one example of this total lack of foresight as to war conditions, because I was the means of getting it definitely and officially demonstrated at the time. It was the custom of the Admiralty, when the Fleet was mobilized for manoeuvres, to invite certain newspapers to send representatives as guests, one to each of a dozen or so picked ships, and to give these guests a week of voyaging and entertainment before the actual manoeuvres began. It had formerly been the practice to take some of them on the actual manoeuvres, but the Silence and Secrecy policy (which hid from criticism the defective design of our turrets, that lost us the QueenMary and other ships, after it had become known to the Germans) stopped at that. I had been one such guest on board the Agamemnon in 1912, with Captain (now Rear-Admiral) Hayes-Sadler, and a very delightful visit I had; but I saw enough to realize the futility, if not the danger, of this method of advertising the Navy through men whose knowledge of its affairs was often of the slightest or altogether non-existent, and from whom in consequence it was necessary that everything of a confidential nature should be concealed; and also of the inevitable danger that would arise in war-time if there was no organization for the intelligent distribution of information. I expressed these views to Beatty one day, and suggested that a kind of corps of naval war-correspondents should be formed, of men whose character and discretion could be trusted, who could go on manoeuvres for purposes of study instead of publicity, and who in actual war could take their place in the Fleet so that the traditions of the Navy (which would be a poor heritage to-day if they had depended on official records) might be handed on enriched by the narratives of trained eye-witnesses, and published, if necessary, not until the close of hostilities.
But Beatty, who in some matters is as conservative and conventional as in others he is original, shook his head. The idea of anything like organized publicity was obviously against all his instincts and training. The Admiralty would never stand it, the Navy would never stand it. (I was to hear the same arguments three years later from Lord Fisher, within six months of the Admiralty launching on a perfect orgy of, I am bound to say, extremely amateurish Press advertisement.) Everything would take place in the most impenetrable secrecy; the North Sea would be closed, and the very mouths of the fishes, I supposed, sealed. Still, as I was so persistent, he suggested that I should put my views in the form of a letter, which he promised would at least be considered by the Board.
The letter was written, and I suppose exists somewhere in the Admiralty archives. The tenor of it was that in a European war the Press would be an element the force of which no one could calculate beforehand, but which would probably be greater than any other unorganized power in the country; that the Press would have news, somehow or other, and that no official organization could prevent it if it had public opinion behind it; that if it were forced to piratical and unauthorized efforts to get news, the effects might be disastrous; and that the advantage of having trained and trustworthy persons to describe such technical matters as naval actions would be considerable; and that the way to train them was to recognize their status beforehand, and both educate and test them by allowing them to go to sea on manoeuvres in war conditions.
This letter was circulated at the Admiralty and the suggestion in it unanimously turned down. Winston Churchill himself told me it was impossible, that I did not realize the extent to which the Fleet would be enveloped in secrecy; that the confidential knowledge involved would be so vital that noone could be trusted. I told him that the secrecy could never be preserved for more than a short time, and that people would have to be trusted. We both lived to hear the movements of the Fleet discussed at Mayfair luncheon tables before the orders had reached the bases, and to see Scapa Flow and the Firth of Forth turned into a kind of holiday rendezvous for hurrah-parties of people whom any of our many Departments had an interest in pleasing.
But on the whole the two years before the war were an interesting and stirring time in the world of naval affairs, and looking back on them, I seem to remember very little except my increasing interest in that world as I found it expressed in these three men — Fisher, Churchill and Beatty. Lord Fisher, except on the rare occasions when one met Him in society, which he generally avoided, I almost always saw alone, and my intercourse with him was rather like that of a pilgrim who should visit an idol in a shrine, or an oracle whom he desired to consult. He wrote some interesting and characteristic letters, which I am sorry I have not kept; but our correspondence chiefly took the form of an interchange of Biblical texts, especially those having reference to Smiting, or Coming Swiftly from Behind, or the ruthless and remorseless dealings of Jahveh with his enemies, or the disagreeable things that happened to people who were not found Watching. But with the other two, my contemporaries, intercourse was on more level and less exacting terms, and through the Beattys I came into contact with some of the more advanced school of naval men — captains well up on the list, but young for their seniority, and generally regarded as being in the running, who combined devotion to the Navy as it had been with a desire to make it something better. One of these was Captain Osmond de B. Brock,2 more conveniently known as O. de B. — who was destined to rise on the war-wave to a position corresponding to his abilities, as so many junior men, alas! were not. He was and is a singular contrast, or rather complement, to his chief, and undoubtedly proved a great strength to him in administrative tasks. Where Beatty was vehement, Brock was quiet; where one struck sparks, the other could blow up the fire; where one was instinctively right, the other could discover why. At once a profound student and practical master of tactics, he filled many gaps that were inevitable in the training of one whose career had been a series of forward dashes with a minimum experience of paper lore and the tiresome methods of offices; and he always provided the solid background of loyal support and cool patience so essential to the finely-tempered nature that is inclined to break its heart if things glaringly necessary cannot be done or obtained out of hand. O. de B. was a great reader, and had the sense to recreate his mind, when it was not professionally occupied, with things that are greater even than the British Navy; and his cabin had always the refreshing peculiarity of being like a branch of Mudie’s Library. One met other officers of Beatty’s future staff at Brooksby in those days, and I remember one night, when Winston Churchill was also there, a great discussion raging on a question of gunnery tactics — I think the point at issue was the masking of gunfire involved in a certain turning movement. The chief protagonists were Reginald Plunkett,3 Beatty’s Staff-Commander, the Admiral, and the First Lord. Argument soon waxed hot; sheets of paper and matches were requisitioned, and the discussion reached a point (not uncommon in naval discussions) when the junior had to admit that the First Lord could not be wrong, while secretly convinced that he was incapable of being right. I asked Winston about it the next morning. “Of course I was right,” he said, “but these are things that the average naval mind” (Oh, Plunkett!) “cannot grasp.” I asked Plunkett. He said, “I am afraid you could hardly expect Winston to grasp a fact which, however elementary, does make a faint demand on common sense.” I asked the Admiral. He said they were both wrong. And there, for the time, my study of naval tactics ceased.
On March 1, 1913, Rear-Admiral Beatty hoisted his flag in H.M.S. Lion. The ceremony of taking over a command is, where a ship is lying in a dockyard, one of the least impressive in the world, whatever its inner significance may be. A gentleman in mufti gets out of a cab, picks his way across the dockyard lumber to the brow joining the jetty with the ship, and with a salute to the quarter-deck, disappears below. A little later an officer in admiral’s undress uniform stands, with the ship’s company at attention, while the white cross of Saint George slowly ascends the foremast; there are a few papers to be signed, a brief chat in the wardroom, and a gentleman in mufti goes ashore and catches the train back to London. But the Navy is never wrong about its ceremonies. When splendour is required it can be provided in more true magnificence than in any other environment; but in the ceremonies that have to do with the endless routine, the passing of responsibility from one hand to another, that are but a moment in a working day, and herald a task that has yet to be done, everything but what is necessary for dignity is omitted. The frills and cheers are reserved for achievement; and an occasion like this depends for its impressiveness on the hidden possibilities that lie in it and the destiny that may await what is so quietly begun.
TOWARDS the end of May, 1913, I received an invitation from Admiral Beatty to spend a few days with him on board the Lion, then in Cromarty Firth; and on the last night of the month, at the end of a busy London day, I was speeding northward on a journey that was afterwards to become very familiar — Edinburgh, Aviemore, Inverness, Dingwall, and then the Admiral’s coxswain on the platform at Invergordon, the walk down to the water, the trim blue steam-barge, and the dash down the waters of the firth to where the five great battle cruisers, Lion, PrincessRoyal, Invincible, Indefatigable and Indomitable, lay like leviathans basking in the afternoon sunshine. And for the first time, little knowing what the future held, I came up the gangway and saluted the Lion’s now historic quarter-deck, and was taken below to the Admiral’s quarters. These, in battle cruisers of this type, are extensive, and the chintz, the fine engravings, the old furniture, enlivened by flowers and books, looked very homely and charming in the heart of this steel citadel.
It is hard to realize that they were once as unfamiliar to me as they are to the reader, that every detail was a thing of curiosity and interest, and every incident a practically new experience. An admiral and his staff, although so closely identified with the flagship, have in fact nothing to do with it as a unit; they are merely guests on board, have their own quarters, live their separate life, eat their separate food, and are waited upon by their own servants. The only real link between them and the ship is the captain, who is also a member of the admiral’s staff; but even there the connexion is often a slight and merely social one, and when he leaves the admiral’s cabin and enters his own quarters, he turns to a duty entirely separate, in which he is supreme — the command of the flagship and its whole complex life. This is a life of many departments, and the more familiar you become with it the more elaborate and complex does it appear. Thus a ship, although technically a unit, is humanly an aggregation of small communities or states, each with its own laws, its separate customs, its particular duties. The wardroom is another world of its own, into which neither the captain nor the admiral any more than the lowest rating in the ship would dream of entering without invitation or permission. And so with the gunroom, that strange school of adolescence and command, the warrant officers’ messes, the great bureaucratic world of the petty officers, the democracy of the mess decks, and so on. All this was not so familiar to me in May, 1913, but that it added a spice of interest to a situation sufficiently agreeable and memorable in a quiet life; so after I had been made welcome in the wardroom and paid my respects to Captain Chatfield and the Commander, I made the inevitable round of the ship and traversed the streets of that steel town with the mingled fascination and bewilderment that are inseparable from a preliminary survey of even the least complex of warships. A walk with the Admiral, a small dinner party which included Captains Chatfield, Brock, Sowerby, Seymour and Kennedy, followed by a cheerful rag in the wardroom, finished the day, and I went to bed in an august apartment on the port side of the ship known as the Admiral’s spare cabin, the counterpart of his own on the starboard side. And not through the small round scuttle associated with the sea cabin, but through generous window spaces open to the violet sky, the salt and scented airs of that unforgotten summer night flowed in upon me.
The next few days were spent at sea exercising the squadron in its manifold duties of day and night firing, signalling, and manoeuvring; and it was possible to study the process of welding together into one coherence all the diversity and variety, both human and material, comprised in five such ships with their captains, officers, and complements. For every ship has its own character and individuality; the greater its efficiency, the more definite is its character. Externally almost indistinguishable by a layman, three ships less alike in character could hardly be found than the Lion, QueenMary and PrincessRoyal; and during the war, and as the years advanced, the differences grew more definite, even while the invisible unity that bound them to one another was strengthened. Just consider. Each of these ships, containing innumerable complete weapons, was in itself a complete weapon of war, by whose condition and efficiency the captain of each was to be judged. It was the Admiral’s task, and the object of these exercises, to combine these five great weapons into one further and greater weapon, namely, the Battle Cruiser Squadron, which in its turn was to be combined with the greatest ever wielded by human power — the Fleet. And Beatty’s task at that time was rendered easier (for an unacademic sailor like him) in that the duties of a battle cruiser squadron at sea had in no wise been laid down either by the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief. There was, indeed, a definite school of naval opinion which held that battle cruisers were of no use at all. It was thus left to its commander to invent duties for it, as well as train and exercise it in the performance of them. All of which had been the subject of much silent thought and study on Beatty’s part during the preceding year, and when the squadron was handed over to him he had but to put into practice certain definite principles that he had arrived at and to devise, in consultation with his captains, methods of training which should apply these principles to North Sea warfare. As laid down by Beatty, they were of the simplest kind. The main uses of battle cruisers were twofold: to provide on occasion an independent scouting force, and to act as a provocative or decoying force to engage the enemy’s heavy ships and, by the use of superior speed, bring them within reach of the main Fleet and so force them to action. In war generally, apart from actual battle, their functions would be fourfold:
(a) Reconnaissance with fast light cruisers on the enemy’s coast at high speed,4
(b) Supporting a blockading force or a patrol of armed cruisers,
(c) Forming supports between such a force and the Battle Fleet when cruising,
(d) Forming supports to a cruiser force watching an enemy’s fleet at sea,
while in a general action they would form a fast division of the Battle Fleet, probably on its flank. The soundness of this conception was to be proved in the course of a year or two, although in the early days of the war this absolutely indispensable arm of the battle cruisers was used for far different purposes, and its very existence risked by employment on duties that should have been performed by smaller ships which the Admiralty, in the absence of a Staff to think and foresee, had failed to provide.
In the private record of those days I find notes of a talk we had, during a long walk ashore, on this subject of training for war. To practise firing at high speeds;5 to cut down expensive deadweight to the last possible degree (such as torpedo-nettings and the vast supplies of salt provisions, based on the requirements of days before steam and of long ocean voyages, which even during the first part of the war ships were required to carry); to substitute offensive material such as coal, oil and ammunition; to eliminate the elaborate signalling of orders — it is not so long ago since the signal “On boots” was made, as an “evolution,” from the flagship to the whole Fleet — and put independent and co-ordinated responsibility in its place; in a word, to restore and stimulate initiative, which Admiralty policy had steadily discouraged; and, most revolutionary of all, to insist upon leave being given and taken on every opportunity, instead of being doled out, like a dangerous drug, in homoeopathic doses. Beatty’s policy was to work his people hard while they were at work, and chase them off to recreate and enlarge their minds when work was over. All of which is commonplace now, but it was highly unorthodox then.
One other thing which became apparent to me in those wonderful days of sea breeze and nights of study and talk in the North Sea was the spirit that underlay all the work and study and discussion. It pervaded all exercises and manoeuvres, and spoke in every line of the Admiral’s brief memoranda to his captains. The principle which embodied it was that the coherent action of the squadron should be (if one may use the term) automatic; that if the principles governing its employment in war were thoroughly grasped, then, in the event of certain things happening, the action to be taken followed logically and should not have to be a matter of signals and orders. And there was never any doubt in the Admiral’s mind as to what was to be done with the enemy. Beatty’s strategy and tactics, given the superiority of force which would enable him, and not the enemy, to select the battle ground, might each be summed up in a sentence: one, To get at the enemy; the other: To destroy him or lead him to destruction. No other considerations would lightly be allowed to qualify these ends; and to attain them no risk was too fine, no cost too great, even the cost of annihilation to oneself. These principles are really the key to Beatty’s career as a commander at sea, and every action of his, tested by and examined in the light of them, will be found clear and consistent. They are the principles, profound as instincts, of every man with a natural gift for organized fighting. I mention them thus early because he was already labouring (as I think he never ceased to labour throughout the war) to instil into his people that, roughly, in the situation in which we should be, it could never be wrong to go for the enemy when you saw him, and that if this principle were thoroughly grasped the details of tactical action would be reduced to great simplicity, should never be a matter of doubt, and therefore need not be the subject of elaborate orders and signals. The lesson was at once too great and too simple to be universally apprehended; here and there someone failed him, now from too much thinking, now from too little. Beatty’s ideal squadron would have turned and manoeuvred and fought like one man, without a word from the flagship; and once it had got its teeth in an enemy it would never have let go so long as one of them remained above the water. Of course he never achieved his ideal, but there were moments when he came very near it, and probably he was never so near it as on the great day that covered the battle cruiser Fleet with glory, and robbed it of some of its best and finest elements.
We came home majestically down the east coast, putting in for a night to the Firth of Forth, where in the opalescence of a dead calm summer morning I watched from the bridge of the Lion the squadron turning together sixteen points after weighing; and the low-lying mist, shot with the colours of the sunrise, hid the calm water and made sea and sky into one glory, so that the ships were manoeuvring as though on the floor of heaven. And in that unimaginable splendour we passed down what was to be our historic war-beat, from Inchkeith to May Island, round the corner of St. Abb’s Head where a certain manoeuvre was to be tried for the first time in the history of naval warfare.
The main characteristics of the battle cruisers, apart from their size and powerful armament, was speed. The extra displacement, or weight, which was used in battleships to provide heavier armour and an extra pair of big guns, was in the battle cruisers devoted to boilers, bunkers and engine-room. One of Lord Fisher’s aphorisms was that “speed is armour,” and the main difference between our battle cruisers and the Germans’ was that the Germans sacrificed a little speed to greater armour protection. Our battle cruisers were supposed to be the embodiment of the “speed is armour” theory; and I think that when they came to be proved, they were found to be defective only, but exactly, to the extent to which that dangerous aphorism applied. The thinness of their armour was a practical disadvantage on several occasions, as we shall see, and the knot or two in speed in which we were superior could be secured in other ways. The greater hitting power of our guns, if the ammunition was sound,6 could be relied on to reduce the speed of an equally fast fleet less heavily armed. We never really caught up with the German battle cruisers when they were running away from us at full speed. It takes a long time, and a huge distance has to be covered, if a ship going at high speed is to be overtaken by a slightly faster one of which she has the start. In the case of a ship steaming at 24 knots, having a 20-mile start of a ship steaming at 26 knots, it would take just five hours, and 130 knots would have to be covered in a stern chase, before the twenty miles were reduced to ten — the beginning of effective gunnery range. And the North Sea did not, in fact, prove big enough for the faster ships to secure their theoretical advantage. The difference was not great enough; but the armour protection which had been sacrificed to secure it made in several cases the difference to the Germans between being sunk and getting home.
It was the speed that was the really untried element in manoeuvres with ships of such a size. The fastest squadron of the battle cruisers was at the most capable of 28 knots; and although the four “cats” (Lion, Tiger, QueenMary and PrincessRoyal) all claimed to have exceeded 30 knots at some time or other, I am doubtful whether any of them, with the possible exception of Tiger, ever attained that speed. But 28 knots, for a ship of the vast dimensions of these, was, of course, an entirely new element in naval tactics; no one had any experience of how it would work out; and the manoeuvres of destroyers (practically the only craft that had ever attained a similar speed in the water) gave no idea whatever of the effect of speed in a squadron of these enormous ships. Therefore, great was the interest which attached on this June day in 1913 to a manoeuvre involving a meeting of battle cruisers at these unprecedented speeds on opposite courses. The Indomitable had been sent off in advance to a point a hundred miles out in the North Sea whence she was to return at full speed towards the English coast, the other battle cruisers meanwhile spreading in order to locate her and bring her to action. Steam for four-fifths speed had been ordered in the whole squadron, which then scattered and searched the sea for their objective. The dark smudge of smoke on the horizon, which is the first visual intimation of friend or enemy alike, was located; the squadron formed into line ahead and stormed through the smooth waters towards the Indomitable