The Rules of the Game
Jutland and the British Naval Command
Andrew Gordon, 1996
I’ve spent a very enjoyable few days reading this book. Andrew Gordon is both a serious historian and credible military thinker who lectures at JSC Shrivenham.
In understanding what went on at Jutland Gordon looks both far back into the mid 19th Century and forward as far as the Falklands 1982, The Gulf in 1991 and Balkans in the mid 1990s. He pinpoints the accidental sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893 as the key moment in locking in a culture of conformism and obedience in the generation for the generation of senior officers who came to dominate the leadership of the Grand Fleet in 1914-16.
In terms of the battle itself Gordon eventually identifies himself as a Beattyite. He takes the view that Admiral Beatty’s use of devolved authority, his aggressive instincts and his willingness to bend rules when it suited him were essential antidotes to the prevailing military culture at the time. In doing so he somewhat underplays the real virtues of Jellicoe and his acolytes: the efficient organisation, attention to detail and accurate gunnery he encouraged. Strategically Jellicoe was also right to be cautious, and his cautious strategy ultimately won the naval campaign of 1914-18 despite the opportunity for a decisive naval battle having been missed.
But this book isn’t about the bitter controversy between the Beattyites and the Jellicoistas. It’s about how the culture of the Royal Navy condemned both of them and their colleagues to misunderstanding and missed opportunities. The essential lessons are timeless: the battle between centralisation and delegation; understanding the higher commander’s intent; the tendency of military technologists to claim that they have ‘solved’ problems when they really haven’t; and bringing us right up to date in the information age, the tendency of excessive signals traffic to swamp and befuddle the command organisation.
Gordon also succeeds in answering the most important historical question about Jutland: why does it matter that the battle wasn’t a resounding British victory, when Britain won both the strategic campaign and the war anyway? The answer is that it shows clearly what happens when the balance of thought in a military organisation goes out of kilter, and the role of peacetime routine, bureaucratic inertia, and rapid technological change in that process. As such the position of our armed forces today is much closer to Jutland than we might care to think.
From the arguments put forward in the final chapters I would also extrapolate that the failure of the massive investment in the Grand Fleet to deliver a resounding naval victory must have contributed to the political willingness to enter into the Naval Treaties of the 1920s rather than pull our struggling economy further out of shape by seeking to renew the arms race with a new generation of super-battleships. The naval dominance given up in the mass scrappings of the 1920s was never restored. It’s a lesson the USN should clearly have in mind in terms of the enormous ongoing investment in maintaining a dominant fleet of CVN in the face of China’s emerging strategy of sea denial. If these hugely expensive weapons can no longer deliver the knockout naval victories of 1941-5 what is all the expense actually for?
Returning to Gordon’s book it does have weaknesses. On Jutland itself Gordon’s enthusiasm for Beatty’s de-centralised approach to command may have led him astray in places. While he deplores that admiral’s attempts to re-write the history of the battle from the Admiralty in the 1920s Gordon himself passes rather lightly over some of Beatty’s more notorious failings in 1914-16, such as his failure to understand the importance of accuracy over speed in gunnery and his deliberate removal of flash protection. Gordon’s narrative implies the lack of flash protection on the Battle Cruisers was an accidental omission rather than a deliberate and reckless decision by the admiral in command, and that the poor gunnery owed as much to the lack of practice facilities at Rosyth as to Beatty’s own mistaken views. Such omissions from the narrative are allowable only if we accept the focus of the book for what it is: a study of the culture of command rather than an attempt at a comprehensive history of otherwise reasonably well known events.
Written in 1996 Gordon’s analysis also cannot therefore link its themes to the lessons of the most recent conflicts. It would be fascinating to know what Gordon thinks of command arrangements and signals proliferation in: The Gulf 2003, the Somalian Counter Piracy mission or the Libyan Campaign of 2011. One can perhaps hope for a future edition with an updated conclusion, or for a future separate study dedicated to late 20th Century Naval Warfare. Professor Gordon however appears to practice what he preaches in terms of signals restraint: he is not a prolific publisher of history books so we may be waiting a long time