Jackie Fisher

Possibly a question more for Navy buffs and the Britishers here, but I have read recently that Fisher was the greatest UK Admiral since Nelson.

Anyone agree/ disagree?

There are few - if any - who would have a stronger claim.

Which is interesting really given that Fisher was, in many ways, the complete opposite of Nelson. They may arguably have shared many of the same character traits - a tendancy to arrogance and flair, coupled with iron self-belief and the ability to inspire almost fanatic support when necessary - but whereas Nelson was very much a “Fighting Admiral,” Fisher was the complete opposite. Fisher was a technocrat and bureaucrat of the highest order. If wars are won by men like Nelson, then it is men like Fisher who give them the means to do so.

He was instrumental in the development of the Dreadnought and ushered in the age of the Battleship, but was never convinced that they were the be-all-and-end-all of naval combat - merely another platform designed for a specific type of warfare. He was the Father of the Destroyer, seeing the need for a small, but capable, class of ship that could counteract first the threat of torpedo boats and later the submarine. If anything, the Destroyer has gone on to have more of an effect on naval history than any other.

His eye for the future was also responsible for giving the British Navy its first submarines - a class of vessel that would never have made it into the Fleet if it hadn’t been for his own personal attention, and which few others would perceive the importance of for another twenty years.

He was also the man behind the development of the much-maligned Battlecruiser. Whilst history has not been kind to it, it is worth remembering that, as with the Battleship itself, Fisher saw them as having a very specific role. The Battlecruisers were designed to serve and protect the Empire abroad - to patrol and act in situations where they were by far the biggest boys in the pond, and where their speed and gunnery would be the crucial factor, not their ability to take hits. Indeed, the catastrophic failure of the Battlecruisers at Jutland (and elsewhere) was not only due to their change of role, but also due to a particularly nasty flaw in the relationship between magazine and gun - a flaw that was easy enough to fix (as the Germans had done) once it was identified, but a flaw that the British Navy had catastrophically failed to spot and do anything about.

Finally, Fisher was also the main force behind the move to an Oil-fueled Fleet, and it was on his watch that the first aircraft carriers started to appear.

Essentially he was exactly the right man in the right place at the right time. He joined a Navy still firmly rooted in the Age of Sail - indeed serving on a Ship of the Line himself - and was instrumental in dragging it kicking and screaming into the Modern Age. The Navy Fisher left behind was to be instrumental in the ultimate victory (and survival) of Great Britain through two World Wars, and one that wouldn’t be totally unrecognisable to people today.

Fisher, like Samuel Pepys before him, proved that sometimes the greatest naval heroes of all are those who rarely get their feet wet.

I have just read Castles of Steel and am in the middle of Dreadnought so it gives a very good background. He certainly provided the Navy with the vessels it needed prior to the Great War.

Good book - i just lent my copy to another doper :smiley:

If you’re interested in British Naval history in general, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, is a rather good read.

Spiny Norman lent me his copy about a year and a half ago, and I ended up getting my own copy. I agree that it’s an excellent book. I’ve been meaning to read it again.

I was really lucky and found a copy in the “clearance” section of a bookshop over here a while back for a £1 (about $2*). Best quid i ever spent.

Right now I’m being really geeky and reading a history of the British Naval Prize System during the Napoleonic era. How i ever got a girlfriend i’ll never know :smiley:

$2 as of Monday morning. If you’re reading this Monday afternoon US time, it’ll probably be about $4 by then

I think in terms of generic greatness, Jackie Fisher is going to win pretty easily, but there are other candidates for greatest fighting sailor.

I think my vote would go to a lowly captain; Frederic John Walker.

Nelson’s genius lied in innovative tactics. In bot the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, he came up with new ways of fighting the enemy (night fight from shallow water and using a double line attack). Johnny Walker came up with new and innovative ways of attacking U boats. He was responsible for the setting up of Hunter Killer groups, and such things as the rolling barrage which proved to be very effective.

To totally nit pick (andI don’t disagree) I was looking for an admiral. And although I said since Nelson I was really looking between Nelson and Fisher- I could have been clearer. Otherwise I think Jellicoe may have qualified- maybe also Cunningham.

Jellicoe fails, i feel, not through any real fault of his own, but due to the failures of those who served under him.

Beatty (and others) made several mistakes at Jutland (and before) which were costly, and ultimately those actions are the responsibility of Jellicoe, who held supreme command.

That may sound harsh, but its only fair really. The positive actions of their juniors generally seem to count towards an Admiral’s greatness so its only fair that the negative ones do as well. Basically if Nelson can claim credit for getting behind the French line at the Nile - it was, after all, Captain Foley on Goliath who spotted the gap and decided to gamble on it - then Jellicoe has to take responsibility for the inability of Beatty to give his ships clear orders.

Jellicoe should also have been far more proactive in making all his commanders get their shit together and learn from earlier signalling/command mistakes. On a seamanship level, the Navy got complacent and lazy at the outbreak of WW1 and were bloody lucky that the German Navy never managed to use that fully to their advantage.

Jellicoe was a fine commander, and one who made few mistakes, but he also took few risks - and that means (to me) that he can never truly be seen as a “great” commander.

Yes- but Beatty was always Beatty. I think one action of Jellicoe- the deployment of the Grand Fleet on The Eastern wing when he made that decision in seconds was crucial. He never got enough credit for that. He did nothing wrong at Jutland. The same cannot be said for Beatty.

If Cook hadn’t been killed before making admiral this thread would be a slam-dunk.

If we are talking of the same Cook, wasn’t he before Nelson?

To expand further, i believe that Jellicoe’s biggest problem was that he was the first Fighting Admiral of the Age of Steel.

He was fighting an entirely new type of warfare with new weapons and new dangers that his predecessors could never even have dreamed of, yet it was to the spirit of dash and daring that those predecessors so magnificiently embodied that he was meant to hold true. In effect, Jellicoe was required to bridge the gap between an age where battles where won by moments of brilliance and (more often than not) turning a blind eye to orders, and one where they were more likely won by planning, good communication and the ability to ignore out-of-date direct orders from above. He wasn’t the only man to struggle with this (Admiral Ernest Troubridge probably has that dubious honour) but struggle he did.

Jellicoe was a smart man and a smart strategist. He knew that the new way of war - Fisher’s way of war - meant that the security of Britain (and more importantly its trade) could be achieved as much by keeping his fleet intact and in defence as it could by winning a decisive battle against the Germans at sea. Britain did not need another Trafalgar, despite what the politicians and public thought, and Jellicoe knew that. He did the maths on whether it was worth risking all and going for the all out big-battle victory and decided against it unless it was quite definitely on his own terms.

The question is, of course, whether his maths was actually right - one of the biggest criticisms that has been levelled at him is that he overestimated the threat posed to the fleet by mines, torpedoes, submarines and other aspects of “new” naval warfare, and played too defensive a game as a result. In some ways, I believe that criticism is justified - none of the new weapons and methods Jellicoe feared had as much of an effect as he thought they would - but hindsight is always 20/20, and is something that Jellicoe did not have the benefit of. Also, the new elements of naval conflict that Jellicoe so feared were exactly those elements which were to prove so devestating in the next war. Jellicoe wasn’t so much wrong, as he was early.

When he did get his big battle at Jutland, Jellicoe was a good commander, and his actions there were rarely wrong and occasionally masterful, but in that battle he lacked two of the key things that arguably made the likes of Nelson and Rodney “great” - good subordinates and good luck.

Ultimately, all of the above makes Jellicoe - to my mind at least - a good commander and one of our best, but one who stops just short of greatness.

Jellicoe was, if I remember, once described as the only man who could have won or lost the war in an afternoon - and it was a fair description and one which I feel probably describes him best.

The problem is that most people concentrate too much on his failure to achieve the first part, whilst ignoring the fact that he deserves an enormous amount of credit for avoiding the second.

I would think the sinking of the HMS Audacious by a mine gave him sufficient cause for concern. At that time a modern battleship.

Don’t get me wrong - i think Jellicoe was right to err on the cautious side. The stakes were simply too high to do otherwise.

That doesn’t change the fact that someone like Nelson, however, would almost certainly have done the opposite.

Would he have been successful? Who knows - but my point is that greatness often requires a certain amount of flirting with disaster in order to achieve that which is apparently impossible. Alternatively, it requires meticulous planning and activitiy ultimately culminating in the same result.

Jellicoe never tried the former and failed at the later. No matter how good he was (and he was very good) he will - to my mind - never be great.

Is the question the same though? If Nelson had lost- what were the consequences- possible invasion a few years down the track (maybe sooner). If Jellicoe had lost- starvation. I think the odds were a little higher.

Depends on what you mean by “losing” - he arguably did so at Jutland.

I do think that the two situations - Britain in its darkest period in the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in WW1 - are broadly similar, and the effects that both men (Nelson and Jellicoe) could have had on the possible outcome in both situations was largely the same.

If anything, the potential situation was worse at Trafalgar than in WW1 - remember Germany in the Great War was not going for all out occupation of Europe (unlike Napoleon before and Hitler later on), they were making a play for greater European power, the humiliation of France and hopefully some nice hot colonies as part of the payoff for peace. They were trying to replay the Franco-Prussian War not dominate the world.

So whilst foreign occupation (or at the very least ruin as a world power) was on the cards for Britain in 1805, in 1916 all Germany really wanted was for Britain to stop interfering on the continent and let this new generation of Germans kick seven shades of shit out of the French just like daddy did. So yes, starvation was on the cards, but only until Britain packed up and went home - which the government would have done (either voluntarily or through public intervention) if things had started even vaguely heading towards the “massive civilian death toll” route.

Basically Jellicoe performed to the best of his ability during WW1 and, when all is added up, did a grand job. For that he should be respected and get more credit than he currently does. But he did no more, and no less, than could be expected given the resources he had available to him. That makes him a good, solid, reliable commander - but no better than that.

At no point did Jellicoe display that spark of genius that turns good commanders into great ones. He had the opportunity to do so at Jutland but he failed to do so. There were mitigating circumstances, certainly, but there always are - Wellington suffered from hideously bad intelligence during the Waterloo campaign yet still pulled it out of the bag. Cromwell suffered from some wonderfully inept subordinates (and associates) yet almost always did the same. Its that spark of genius - whether in combat or cabinet (as was the case for people like Pitt or Fisher) - that makes men great, and Jellicoe didn’t have it.

Your mileage, of course, may well vary on that. If so, feel free to argue your case! :smiley:

Fisher was a visionary who totally reformed the Royal navy. He revamped the training and promotion procedures for officers, and made sure that men of talen were promoted, instead of hacks and cronies. His battleship innovations were also significant; as for the battlecruisers, they had numerous design flaws that were exposed at jutland, such as;
-bad optical rangefinders-the British optics were simply not as good as the German
-bad shell fuses: many British shells broke up on impact, without exploding
-bad construction; the magazines could be ignited by a shell hit on a turet
All of these problems were fixed, they did cause big losses. however, despite all of the criticism- Jellicoe WON the battle of jutland-the german navy NEVER came out to challenge the british again.

…and the old guard in the Navy hated him for it. :stuck_out_tongue: Good thing he had Churchill on his side.

I don’t think you can argue much against Jellicoe’s strategy.

Sure the battle plan didn’t gain the huge victory that was hoped for by the blood and thunder glory boys, but the reality was that Jutland bottled up the German fleet, and did almost as much damage to the maritime interests of Germany as if he had sunk them.

Most of WW1 was characterised by old fashioned thinking, or quick victories, of an overall ‘big push’, but there were precious few who truly appreciated that this was to be an industrial war as much as anything, Kitchener for all his flaws actually worte about the war before it happend as being a war of attrition.

Jellicoe could be seen more in the way Eisenhower was, not as a battle winner, but as a war winner, becuase it can take a diffrerant sort of individual to appreciate strategy on such a scale.

My candidate for one of the greatest British Admirals would have to be Admiral Cochrane,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cochrane,_10th_Earl_of_Dundonald