Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Great admirals and Jackie Fisher

I've been doing a lot of research recently about the Dreadnought era for a project I'm working on, and if there's an unavoidable figure when you are talking about dreadnoughts, it's John Arbuthnot Fisher, known as "Jacky," twice First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and the father of the modern Royal Navy.

From midshipman ...
Fisher is a fascinating character study, of course, but there are a lot of fascinating characters who are disastrous leaders. Leaving aside his indelible personality, I'd like to consider the prejudice against non-"fighting" commanders among many when they consider the "greatness" of  a leader.

Now, undoubtedly, combat is the final arbiter, when it comes to a clash of arms. In the end, the man in the trench has to be given due consideration on the day of battle. But, especially in modern war, events at the trench level are usually the culmination of a long progression of events and forces that begin long before the trench was dug -- and sometimes even before the trench digger was born.

Because of this, its not uncommon for a leader to play an enormous role in the eventual victory of his side, while never being close enough to hear the sound of the guns, From World War II we have the example of George C. Marshall, who was sorely disappointed when Eisenhower was picked to be Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. FDR was convinced that Marshall did much more for the war effort as Chief of Staff -- and few doubt that FDR was entirely correct. Marshall, himself, probably realized it.

... to First Sea Lord -- twice
 Admiral Chester Nimitz is another well-known example. Many accounts consider Yamamoto's opponents at Midway to be Fletcher and Spruance, the admirals in tactical command. But in many ways his real opposite number was Nimitz -- and in a real sense, the fact that Yamamoto was at sea and Nimitz was not is an irrelevant detail.

Likewise, Jackie Fisher was not at sea in 1916 when the Battle of Jutland was fought. Indeed, he wasn't even First Sea Lord any more, having been retired from the job for the second time the year before. But the British Grand Fleet at Jutland was Jackie Fisher's fleet -- as sure as it would have been if he had been on the bridge of the HMS Iron Duke himself. Admiral John Jellicoe, who was on that bridge, was Fisher's hand-picked man to lead the fleet. There was hardly a ship in the entire fleet that was more than a decade old. With the exception of a handful of older types, nearly all the ships were directly or indirectly his brainchild. The dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers were his conception. The fleets of destroyers, too. He coined the term "torpedo boat destroyer" for the new class of ships.

Circumstances prevented Fisher from ever leading a fleet into battle, but I'd rank him right along with Nelson, myself. 

Adm. Chester Nimitz is another  was a


  1. I love to read historical events and here your photos and interesting blog on admirals and Jackie Fisher is making me feel excited! What is a dreadnought battleship? Why did Fisher pick up Jellicoe to lead the fleet? Name some disastrous leaders and what did they do in their life????

  2. A dreadnought is an all-big-gun battleship, a concept championed by Fisher who brought the first one -- HMS Dreadnought -- into being in record time.

    Fisher had worked with Jellicoe before and was very impressed with him, although their personalities were quite different.