John Jellicoe (1859-1935) was famously described as ‘The only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon’ by Winston Churchill in his book ‘The World Crisis.’
Jellicoe, born in Hampshire to a family with naval traditions, joined the Navy at the age of 12. He passed out second out of 39 cadets and was posted in 1874 to HMS Newcastle as a midshipman. HMS Newcastle was a sailing frigate, its steam engines were only an auxiliary to the sails which were her main source of propulsion. Over the next forty years the Royal Navy underwent a complete revolution in naval warfare and Jellicoe was involved in most of it as he had been hand-picked by Fisher as a future leader.
He served in the Russian-Turkish war, the Egyptian campaign and the Boxer Rebellion in China. In each he showed remarkable courage under fire.
He survived the collision between HMS Victoria (the flag ship where he was executive officer) and HMS Camperdown during a botched fleet manoeuvre off the coast of Tripoli. He had been below decks sick with ‘Malta fever’ at the time.
By 1880, Jellicoe had decided to train to become a gunnery specialist; his appointment to the staff of the gunnery school brought him to the attention of Captain John Fisher. As Fisher progressed up the ranks, so did Jellicoe. He became involved in the testing of all new guns, especially the introduction of the new quick firing gun which became the armaments on most of the light cruisers and the anti-torpedo boat guns on battleships. When he was promoted to captain in 1897, he served as the naval assistant to the Controller at the Admiralty. In between active service at sea, Jellicoe served as naval assistant to the third sea lord and Controller of the navy, and as director of naval ordinance (once Fisher was first sea lord). This involved him in the design of the new battleship, Dreadnought, the first in its class of all big-gun warships. When he returned to the Admiralty as third sea lord, he oversaw the building of twelve battleships (not all Dreadnoughts). Unfortunately, one of Jellicoe’s requests was forgotten – the improvement in armour plating to match the ships in the German navy. The German navy had sacrificed speed and distance for heavier armourment. This, combined with better shells, mines and torpedoes, would give the German navy an advantage which became more apparent during the Battle of Jutland.
When war was declared in August 1914, Jellicoe was appointed commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet. His aim was to bring the German High Seas Fleet to battle and defeat them in a second Trafalgar. This was not to be. There were several minor skirmishes early in the war – Heligioland Bight (August 1914 when Commander Tyrwhitt and Vice-admiral Beatty encountered German cruisers, Tyrwhitt sank two German torpedo boats and Beatty sank two German cruisers) and Dogger Bank (January 1915, when Beatty intercepted a German battlecruiser squadron half way across the North Sea and sank the Blucher and damaged the flagship Seydlitz) but these showed up the inadequacies of British ships – poor gunnery and faulty signalling. These problems have been laid at Admiral Beatty’s door. The gunnery of his battle cruisers (based at Rosyth) was never as good as that of the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow. As wireless was in its infancy, signalling involved flags and lights which demanded good visibility to avoid misunderstandings. In 1916, command of the High Seas Fleet fell to Admiral Scheer, an aggressive seaman. His plan was to use the German battle cruiser fleet under Admiral Hipper to draw Beatty’s battle cruisers away from the Grand Fleet and to destroy them.
On 30 May 1916, British intelligence learned that the German High Seas Fleet was out of harbour and that Beatty would have a chance to draw Hipper’s battle cruisers and maybe the High Seas Fleet onto the guns of the Grand Fleet which had set sail from Scapa Flow. Beatty immediately left Rosyth with his squadrons. As half of his battlecruisers were away at Scapa Flow improving their gunnery, he set off with one squadron of battlecruisers and a super-battleship squadron under Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Once Beatty encountered Hipper’s squadron at 1430 on 31 May, he signalled to Evan-Thomas to change direction. Unfortunately Evan-Thomas’ ships were slower than Beatty’s and did not see the signalling flags (and no back-up signal via searchlight was given) and were not in position to support Beatty’s attack. Once Hipper sighted Beatty’s squadron the German ships opened fire (1548), Hipper’s intention after turning was to draw Beatty’s squadrons onto the big guns of Scheer’s battleships. Beatty’s ‘Lion’ was hit at 1600 but quick work flooding the magazine prevented an explosion. Other ships were not so lucky: a direct hit on ‘Indefatigable’ caused it to blow up (1602), followed by the ‘Queen Mary’ (1625). At this stage Beatty made his infamous statement ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ During all of this, Evan-Thomas’ battleships – the fastest and most heavily armed in the world – were unable to join in the firing for the first half-hour. At 1615 Evan-Thomas’ battleships opened fire and immediately hit the German ships. Unfortunately the direct hits merely caused damage and did not sink any of them. At 1640, once Beatty realised the situation, he turned his squadron around heading north in order to draw the German ships onto the guns of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Once again Beatty failed to signal his withdrawal to Evan-Thomas who found his squadron passing Beatty’s as the battlecruisers headed north. Beatty signalled Jellicoe about the action and for an hour drew the German ships north, Evan-Thomas maintained a rear guard action. Scheer was totally unaware that Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet was waiting for him. Jellicoe was also waiting for Beatty to tell him where the German fleet was so as to deploy in a correct fashion and ‘cross Sheer’s T’. By 1814 Jellicoe had this information, deployed to port and the Grand Fleet opened fire on Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Scheer immediately ordered his fleet to turn and flee at 1833. Under a pall of smoke and mist, Scheer’s forces succeeded in disengaging by executing a 180 degree turn in unison. Jellicoe did not order a chase as he was worried about a torpedo attack. Scheer deployed again at 1900 and brought his ships onto Jellicoe’s. Once again the Grand Fleet opened fire and caused considerable damage to the German ships before they moved once again out of range. In this second intense engagement, the German ships sustained 37 hits, while inflicting only two of the Grand Fleet. As twilight faded into night, the action stopped as Jellicoe had never believed in night-fighting. The German withdrawal resulted in most of the High Seas Fleet returning to base.
The action had involved 16 German Dreadnoughts against 28 English, 5 German battlecruisers against 9 English, 11 German light cruisers against 26 English, 61 German destroyers against 78 English. The Grand Fleet also contained 8 armoured cruisers which the High Seas Fleet did not have, and the High Seas Fleet contained 6 pre-Dreadnought battleships which the Grand Fleet did not have.
The English losses were 3 battlecruisers, 3 armoured cruisers and 7 smaller ships. The German losses were 1 battlecruiser, 1pre-Dreadnought battleship, 4 light cruisers and 5 smaller ships. These losses could be put down to the usual causes: poor gunnery, poor signalling, the German armour being tougher than the English and an unfortunate habit of storing munitions out of the magazine ready for transport to the guns. Needless to say the Germans claimed a victory but never emerged from harbour in any number again. As one journalist recorded the battle ‘The High Seas Fleet has assaulted its jailor but was still in jail.’ The High Seas Fleet remained in harbour until the end of the war, when Hipper decided to take the Fleet out for one last action, he was prevented by a mutiny.
Unrestricted U-boat warfare was introduced by the Germans in 1917. Initially, this took a formidable toll on shipping but it was a political nightmare – it brought the USA into the war.
Jellicoe left the Grand Fleet in November 1916 (being replaced by Beatty) when he made First Sea Lord. Here he was in a position to improve the shell design, the training and the communications which let the fleet down at Jutland. The submarine warfare led to convoys, something Jellicoe had opposed. This did tip the balance as the improvements in the depth charges and the hydrophones carried by the destroyers led eventually to the end of the U-boat menace.
Jellicoe had always been a poor administrator, he found it difficult to delegate. When Lloyd-George brought in Geddes to improve the Royal Navy, Jellicoe was dismissed (December 1917).
After the war Jellicoe toured the dominions (Australia, Canada & New Zealand) to advise on their new independent navies. From 1920 -24, Jellicoe was Governor-general of New Zealand. In retirement he held a variety of voluntary posts including being president of the British Legion after the death of Field-Marshall Haig. He died after contracting a chill in 1935.