Finest Hour 172, Spring 2016
By Stephen McLaughlin
Mr. Churchill spent a blissful two hours demonstrating with decanters and wine-glasses how the Battle of Jutland was fought. It was a thrilling experience. He was fascinating. He got worked up like a schoolboy, making barking noises in imitation of gunfire and blowing cigar smoke across the battle scene in imitation of gunsmoke.
—James Lees-Milne, describing an experience at Chartwell in January 19281
Churchill’s improvised table-top recreation of one of the most complex battles in naval history was remarkable not only for the fascination it held for Lees-Milne, but also because just a few years earlier Churchill had admitted to his friend, ViceAdmiral Sir Roger Keyes, that he had “only the vaguest idea of what had taken place” at Jutland.2 The indecisive battle had been fought on 31 May 1916, a full year after Churchill’s forced resignation from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty, and his only connection with it came when he was asked to make a morale-boosting statement for the press to compensate for an earlier, and depressingly honest, Admiralty communiqué.3 Though an effective piece of propaganda, his statement was not based on a deep knowledge of the events of the battle.
But by 1924 Churchill’s work on his history of the Great War, The World Crisis, was approaching the point where he would have to provide some account of the battle. By this time the “Jutland controversy” was already in full swing, an unseemly quarrel between the supporters of the two chief British commanders at Jutland, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Although he had not previously studied the battle in detail, Churchill was by no means a disinterested party in this debate. Beatty had served as his naval secretary for fifteen months in 1911–13, and the young admiral had impressed him deeply; in a navy that, in Churchill’s famous phrase, “had more captains of ships than captains of war,” Beatty seemed to him a man possessing “shrewd and profound sagacity” who “viewed questions of naval strategy and tactics in a different light from the average naval officer.”4 As a result of his highly favorable assessment, in the spring of 1913 he had appointed Beatty to the command of the Battle Cruiser Squadron, a force which, by the time of Jutland, had been greatly augmented and redesignated the Battle Cruiser Fleet. Churchill was satisfied with Beatty’s performance during the first two years of the war, despite some confusion in his signals that foreshadowed events at Jutland, and called the admiral “the most daring of our naval leaders.”5
His views on Jellicoe, on the other hand, were mixed. Jellicoe’s performance during prewar maneuvers had been little short of brilliant, and Admiral Sir John Fisher, who often advised Churchill on naval matters, had insisted that Jellicoe had “all the Nelsonic attributes” and was “the best officer the Navy has ever had since Nelson.”6 As a result, Churchill had appointed Jellicoe Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet—Britain’s most important naval force—upon the outbreak of war. But the admiral’s wartime performance had been less to Churchill’s liking. He would later note that Jellicoe “continually dwelt upon the weakness and deficiencies of the force at his disposal, and at the same time magnified the power of the enemy.”7 Moreover, Jellicoe had been one of the senior officers who rejected Churchill’s schemes for seizing islands off the German or Dutch coasts and using them as bases for blockading the German fleet in its harbors.8
The contrast could not have been more plain—the bold, aggressive Beatty versus the cautious, fretful Jellicoe. Small wonder that Churchill, always offensive-minded, was predisposed toward the Beatty camp long before he entered the Jutland controversy. This inclination was reinforced by the first serious study of the battle he read, the Naval Staff Appreciation of Jutland.9 This was a highly controversial account of the battle prepared in 1921, but its extremely pro-Beatty tone had led the Admiralty to suppress it because, as Admiral Keyes and his colleague Admiral Chatfield— both ardent supporters of Beatty—had noted in a joint memo, it was liable to “rend the Service to its foundations.”10 But having been instrumental in the book’s suppression, in 1924 Keyes loaned this explosive study of the battle to Churchill, who found it “admirable.”11 He apparently retained it for more than two years, throughout the long gestation of volume III of The World Crisis.12
Churchill also took advantage of another naval contact—none other than Beatty himself, now Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Beatty and First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy. Beatty responded to Churchill’s request for assistance by placing Captain Kenneth Dewar at his disposal.13 Dewar was one of the authors of the Naval Staff Appreciation (the other author was his brother, Captain Alfred Dewar), so Churchill’s main written source and chief naval adviser were to all intents and purposes identical. Churchill and Dewar were certainly in contact by August 1926, when the latter was invited “to luncheon & stay the night” at Chartwell.14 Thus, although Churchill’s stated intention was “to steer a faithful and impartial passage” through the “reproaches and recriminations” resulting from the battle, all of his advisers were Beatty’s men—Dewar, Keyes, and Beatty himself; there is no evidence that he sought the views of anyone in Jellicoe’s camp.15
The Author at Work
Throughout his two Jutland chapters we see Churchill’s descriptive powers in full measure, and his ability to turn a phrase still resonates— almost without exception every account of the battle since has repeated his observation that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”16 But he fails any reasonable test for impartiality, skipping lightly over Beatty’s errors while criticizing Jellicoe for every perceived mistake.17 For example, Beatty’s most controversial actions centered on his handling of the 5th Battle Squadron, four fast battleships commanded by Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas that were temporarily attached to Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet. When Beatty took off in pursuit of the German battlecruisers, the only signal made was by flags, which could not be read from the 5th Battle Squadron, stationed five miles from Beatty’s flagship. As a result, Evan-Thomas did not immediately follow Beatty, and a gap opened up between the two forces, delaying the 5th Battle Squadron’s subsequent entry into action. In discussing this incident, Churchill stacks the deck heavily against Evan-Thomas, advancing only one reason for his failure to follow immediately (that he received no signal to do so), but no fewer than six reasons why he should have done so despite the lack of a signal.18 The result is that blame is deflected from Beatty’s sloppy signalling and placed squarely on Evan-Thomas’ shoulders.
Another instance comes when Beatty, having pursued the German battlecruisers in what has become known as the “run to the south,” found himself face-toface with the entire German High Seas Fleet—Beatty had been led into a trap. Realizing the danger, he immediately turned about, now leading the enemy’s fleet toward Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet in the “run to the north.” And here Churchill again passes lightly over Beatty’s lapses, first in ignoring a second signalling failure by Beatty’s flagship that left the 5th Battle Squadron steaming straight for the German fleet longer than was necessary, and then giving the impression that the battlecruisers were in continuous action with the enemy as he led them northward, when in fact for long periods of the chase his ships were out of range, leaving the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron to hold off the entire German fleet unaided.19
In contrast, Jellicoe is criticized on almost every level. Churchill begins by stating: “The dominant school of naval thought and policy are severe critics of Sir John Jellicoe.”20 He goes on to note that his tactics were inflexible, centralized, and cautious; “divisional” tactics, in which a fleet would be divided into a number of smaller, independently maneuvering units, would have been better.21 Jellicoe’s method of deployment on the left wing, rather than on the center column, was bad,22 and he was overly cautious, retiring from German torpedo attacks that were in fact not very dangerous.23 Churchill paints Jellicoe as an able administrator, but in his telling the admiral was clearly unfit to serve as a leader in battle.
Every one of these points for Beatty and against Jellicoe had been set forth by Dewar in the Naval Staff Appreciation of Jutland; sometimes even the wording in The World Crisis is very close to that of the Appreciation. For example, the latter describes Jellicoe’s main tactical precepts in these terms: “(a) The single line and the parallel course; (b) Long range; (c) Defensive action against the torpedo.”24 In The World Crisis Churchill sums up Jellicoe’s tactics in an almost identical manner: “the single line and the parallel course; a long-range artillery conflict; and defensive action against torpedo attack.”25
So is Churchill’s account simply a rehash of the Naval Staff Appreciation? The answer must be a decided “no.” It would be more accurate to say that the Appreciation confirmed his earlier assessments of Beatty and Jellicoe, and for that reason he no doubt found it a congenial guide to the technical details of the battle. But he by no means accepted its views uncritically. In one letter to Keyes he noted that he and Dewar had been having “some lively arguments,” and evidence of these disagreements can be found in The World Crisis, reflecting the different natures of Kenneth Dewar and Churchill.26 A longtime friend and correspondent, Reginald Drax, would later describe Dewar as “a disappointed, angry man and much inclined to be hyper-critical.”27 He was in fact a disappointed reformer; he had been determined to reform the Royal Navy’s strategy, tactics, and educational system, but his single-minded zeal and harsh criticisms undermined his efforts. Thus, although formidable, his was not a balanced intellect. As a statesman, Churchill possessed a broader outlook that could accommodate a more nuanced view of men and events. He could write of Jellicoe’s deployment decision, “The Commander-in-Chief chose the safer course. No one can say that on the facts as known to him at the moment it was a wrong decision.”28 Dewar could never have written that sentence; throughout the Naval Staff Appreciation, Alfred and Kenneth Dewar had held Horatio Nelson up as an ideal, and it is clear that in their view Jellicoe had fallen well short of that ideal.
Churchill agreed that Jellicoe was no Nelson. He could find fault with Jellicoe’s leadership methods, he could criticize his actions in battle, but in the end he could not condemn him for falling short of the Nelsonic ideal. Churchill’s account of Jutland, while influenced by Kenneth Dewar and the Naval Staff Appreciation, is still very much his own work.
Jellicoe died in 1935, Beatty the year after, and with their passing the Jutland controversy subsided to such a degree that the Royal Navy decided to name two new battleships after them—perhaps as a sign of reconciliation within the Service. These ships were still under construction when Churchill returned to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. In February 1940 he minuted that these names were undesirable since “the controversies in which they played a part are still living issues in the Fleet.”29 The two ships were therefore renamed after two illustrious—and uncontroversial—admirals of the eighteenth century, Anson and Howe. Although the Jutland Controversy had abated within the Navy, it was apparently still very much alive in Churchill’s mind.
Stephen McLaughlin is a librarian for the San Francisco Public Library. He has written extensively on naval history and is the author of Russian and Soviet Battleships (Naval Institute Press, 2003). His latest project was an annotated edition of the Naval Staff Appreciation of Jutland (Naval Institute Press, 2016), which was left incomplete when his friend Bill Schleihauf passed away.
1. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), pp. 483–84.
2. Churchill to Keyes, 25 August 1924, reproduced in The Keyes Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge, 3 vols, ed. Paul G. Halpern (London: Navy Records Society, 1979–81), vol. 2, p. 104.
3. Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Vol. III, Part 2, May 1915–December 1916 (London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. 1511–12.
4. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 6 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923–31), vol. 1, pp. 94 and 88.
5. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 137.
6. Fisher to Churchill, 14 January 1912, quoted in Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 1, p. 146; Fisher to Churchill, 5 March 1912, reproduced in Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, 3 vols., ed. Arthur J. Marder (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952–59), vol. 2, p. 439.
7. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, p. 107.
8. Christopher Bell, Churchill and Sea Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 53–59.
9. Churchill to Keyes, 25 August 1924, Keyes Papers, vol. 2, p. 104. An annotated edition of this once-confidential book has recently been published; see William Schleihauf, ed., Jutland: The Naval Staff Appreciation, with additional text by Stephen McLaughlin (London: Seaforth Publishing, 2016).
10. Memorandum by the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (Keyes) and the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Chatfield), 14 August 1922, quoted in The Beatty Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, 2 vols., ed. B. McL. Ranft (London: Navy Records Society, 1989–93), vol. 2, pp. 455–56.
11. Churchill to Keyes, 25 August 1924; Keyes Papers, vol. 2, p. 104.
12. Churchill to Keyes, 16 September 1926; Keyes Papers, vol. 2, pp. 189–90.
13. Robin Prior, Churchill’s ‘World Crisis’ as History (Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm Ltd., 1983), p. 198; Churchill to Keyes, 16 September 1926, Keyes Papers, vol. 2, pp. 189–90.
14. Dewar Papers, DEW/3, National Maritime Museum.
15. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, p. 159.
16. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 106.
17. For a complete discussion, see Prior, Churchill’s ‘World Crisis’ as History, pp. 188–209.
18. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, pp. 117–18.
19. Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 128 and 142.
20. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 105.
21. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, pp. 131–32; see also Stephen McLaughlin, “Divide and Conquer? Divisional Tactics and the Battle of Jutland,” in Warship 2016, ed. John Jordan (London: Conway, forthcoming).
22. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, pp. 144–47; see also Stephen McLaughlin, “Equal Speed Charlie London: Jellicoe’s Deployment at Jutland,” in Warship 2010, ed. John Jordan (London: Conway, 2010), pp. 122–39.
23. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, pp. 149–51.
24. Schleihauf, ed., Jutland: The Naval Staff Appreciation, p. 19.
25. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, p. 131.
26. Churchill to Keyes, 16 September 1926, Keyes Papers, vol. 2, pp. 189–90.
27. Letter, Admiral Drax to Arthur Marder, 18 August 1959, DRAX 6/18, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.
28. Churchill, World Crisis, vol. 3, p. 145.
29. See Churchill to Pound and Carter, 15 February 1940; Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill War Papers, At the Admiralty, September 1939–May 1940 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), pp. 762–63 and 189–90.