BOOK REVIEW – Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II

Benjamin Hruska, Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2021. 288 pp.

Review by Lt Col Nicholas Smith
Senior Instructor, United States Air Force Academy

“For the 957 sailors on board, the two German torpedoes with 660 pounds of explosives slamming Block Island caught them in a range of activities including showering, cooking meals, and doing laundry…..immediately heading for the bridge (Captain) Hughes witnessed visible damage, ‘en route I noticed the port side of the flight deck curled back about ten feet and forward part of the flight deck covered with oily water…’ a group of sailors soon gathered on the bow around a wounded sailor who was serving as lookout when the torpedo struck.  Besides being badly injured, his legs were trapped in the mangled catwalk as a result of the explosion.”1

This excerpt from Valor and Courage provides a perfect example of how Benjamin Hruska blends life on board the Block Island with the reality of the dangers the crew faced at sea during World War II. In this case, when a German U-boat off the coast of North Africa torpedoed them on May 29, 1944, making her the only American carrier sunk in the Atlantic theater.

Hruska’s Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II tells the story of both Bogue class escort carriers (CVE-21 and CVE-106).

These carriers incorporated, “a hull designed for commercial use into floating airfield (s) fashioned for warfare.”2 CVE-21, was sunk in the Atlantic and CVE-106 would be renamed after it and would go on to serve in the Pacific theater until the end of the war (setting sail a mere 12 days after her namesake sank). By examining both ships, Hruska provides a unique lens concerning carrier operations in two theaters during the war, the different leadership styles of the crews’ two captains, and insight into naval adoption of aviation tactics aboard an escort carrier. Through the eyes of the crewmembers, the reader experiences hunter killer missions in the Atlantic for German U-boats, transportation of German POWs, the terror of waiting to be rescued from the water after having their carrier sunk, potential kamikaze attacks, and supporting the invasion of Okinawa.        

Throughout the book, Hruska expertly examines the lives and actions of the sailors who served aboard these two ships.  By drawing upon oral histories and interviews of the original crewmembers, official records, and archival entries, many of the unsung actions of these brave individuals come to life in vivid detail. Additionally, he weaves together these primary sources in a fluent and conversational tone. Valor and Courage lays out its tale across twenty-five chapters, including a helpful list of figures (of which there are twenty), endnotes broken up by chapter, an index, and a bibliography.        

The only criticism that can be levied on the book (and it is a minor one) is that it tries to be too many things. Hruska sets out to not only tell the intimate story of the crews of the Block Island, but also to examine the impact of American mass production, and prove that “the interwar period served as a time of incubation for naval leadership.”3 Additionally, the work highlights the careers of the Block Island’s two commanding officers, and charts how naval officers who early on adopted to naval aviation played a critical role in the war ahead. While he provides evidence to support his claims, the book really comes to life when telling the tale of the crews, offering a rare insight that Hruska himself admits is, “not found only in such repositories as the National Archives or the Naval History and Heritage Command.” (5)   

Valor and Courage does exactly what is sets out to do, which is to bring to life the actions of the crews of CVE-21 and CVE-106 in such a way that has not been done before. True, many of the goals Hruska sets out to accomplish aside from this have already been argued at greater lengths, but that should in no way dissuade anyone from reading this well-crafted work of history. Valor and Courage should be of value to anyone interested in either naval history, World War II, or a more general audience that wants to explore the history of this thus far uncovered topic.

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BOOK REVIEW – Small Boats and Daring Men Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

Benjamin Armstrong, Small Boats and Daring Men Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. 280 pp.

Review by Dr. Justin Simundson, PhD
Assistant Professor, United States Air Force Academy

Benjamin Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men provides a fascinating account of an often-overlooked aspect of naval history. Armstrong, a Navy Commander and Associate Professor at the US Naval Academy, has already written extensively on naval history and that clearly helped lead to this refined book on naval irregular warfare. With eight compelling and well-researched episodes of irregular war in the Age of Sail, this book should be of interest to a range of readers. For the general reader, the lively descriptions of combat and the captivating leadership portraits offers some of the adventure associated with the likes of Hornblower or Aubrey. For practitioners and policymakers involved in naval irregular warfare, or for professional military readers more generally, the book raises key questions about naval strategy as well as lessons on military leadership that transcend eras. Lastly, for scholars, Small Boats and Daring Men advances several important historiographical points and points the way to new avenues of inquiry.

Armstrong’s central premise is that naval historians have had an excessive focus on blue water navies, fixating especially on the dichotomy of guerre de course (attacking enemy commerce at sea) versus guerre d’escadre (naval strategy centered on fleet combat). This focus reflected the scholarly foundations of historians like Mahan, the preferences of navalist politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, and the self-image of naval officers. Armstrong argues persuasively that this focus has led to overlooking other significant aspects of naval operations, particularly what he calls “guerre de razzia, or war by raiding,” borrowing and extending the term from James C. Bradford’s work. Armstrong uses eight separate US naval actions throughout the Age of Sail to point out “the fact that naval irregular warfare is not quite so irregular” and is actually “a fundamental part of the entire operational history of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.”

The first episode Armstrong examines is that of John Paul Jones and his raiding of the British Isles during the Revolutionary War. Although blue-water navalists like Roosevelt later appropriated Paul Jones because of his ship-to-ship actions in the war, Armstrong demonstrates how Paul Jones’ legacy was more complicated and included raiding and irregular operations. In Armstrong’s telling, this does not diminish Paul Jones’ status as father of the US Navy, but instead points to the fact that naval irregular warfare was part of American naval tradition from the beginning. In fact, the cruise of Paul Jones and the Ranger demonstrated some of the “principal elements” of naval irregular warfare, including the complimentary “relationship between irregular operations and conventional naval missions,” the importance of “local knowledge and proper intelligence” in irregular warfare, and the unique qualities of leadership needed in irregular operations. However, while Paul Jones possessed the “strategic and diplomatic understanding” necessary for a senior officer, he lacked the kind of aggressive junior officers beneath him that could have led to more unequivocally successful irregular operations.

Much of the remainder of the book is dedicated to later examples where this balance of senior leaders with strategic vision along with empowered, aggressive junior officers existed. Chapters on the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812’s lake-based naval battles show how the early American navy continued to undertake irregular warfare with considerable success. The repeated participation in irregular warfare helped develop the leadership of the early navy in a way that would not have been possible with only conventional operations. In unconventional operations, junior officers gained opportunities for individual command when entrusted with small combatants like gunboats or missions like cutting-out expeditions and expeditionary raids. Despite this developmental value of irregular warfare and its strategic worth, Armstrong shows how the Navy and United States generally neglected the needs of irregular warfare in planning and fleet construction. Instead, the Navy normally focused on building conventional heavy frigates while failing to build or maintain a balanced force that included sufficient small combatants. The final two chapters on anti-piracy actions in Sumatra show how these same patterns “continued into the transition years between the Age of Sail and the steam era,” suggesting the continuing validity of the lessons Armstrong draws from America’s early irregular naval operations.  

Overall, Armstrong’s study of naval irregular warfare is an excellent and important addition to the fields of both naval and military history. It proves that while contemporary debates on warfare often frame things like “hybrid conflict” as new and uniquely modern, naval irregular operations have in fact been a regular part of warfare. Small Boats and Daring Men makes a compelling case for deeper and more widespread examination of naval irregular warfare, but it could be argued that Armstrong perhaps exaggerates slightly when he contends that “naval raiding and irregular warfare represent an essential, if unstudied, theme in the history of American sea power.” In recognition of the fact that there has been both scholarly and popular attention to some topics like brown water navies and piracy, it would be more appropriate to say that naval irregular warfare has been understudied rather than “unstudied.”  Nevertheless, Armstrong has proved that this significant topic deserves greater attention, and he has done an exceptional job in constructing a foundation for other scholars to build upon.  

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BOOK REVIEW – Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought

Kevin D. McCranie, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. 320 pp

Review by Dr. Joseph Moretz, Ph D, FRHistS

Those writing on naval affairs will ever be indebted to Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, if not the first to put pen to paper and write about navies, then they remain of the first rank of those still cited owing to their breadth of treatment, originality of thought, and continuing influence. More than historians, though assuredly they remained that within the limits of Clio’s art in their time, both proved to be theorists of the first order making their histories breathe with a relevance not found in those written by their contemporaries. Of the two, Mahan established the greater renown being read and feted on both sides of the Atlantic and even further afield during his lifetime in a manner eluding Corbett. Why this proved to be the case, it can be ascribed to the Englishman’s initial lack of stature and the works of fiction and light biography which first appeared under his name. Time would correct the matter of stature and prove Corbett to be the sounder historian and, probably, the sounder theorist too. All this is grist for the mill for Kevin D. McCranie, the Philip A. Crowl Professor of Comparative Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, who in Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought offers a well-researched, balanced and welcomed reassessment of these two titans of naval strategic discourse.

Many will recognize Mahan as the author of the groundbreaking work The Influence of Seapower Upon History 1660-1783. Appearing in 1890 just as the American West was closing, it seemingly codified the utility of navies while making the case for a revived United States Navy in furtherance of the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” In truth, the Navy’s fortunes predated Mahan’s famed treatise, but that work did provide a ready rationale for the course now adopted. More importantly, it would be seized by others as they too embraced the period’s navalism. Conversely, and befitting a chronicler of Drake and his successors, Corbett did not have to convince compatriots of the centrality of the Royal Navy to Britain and its empire. Rather, he sought to inform its seagoing officers how that power was best understood and applied. Adopting a Clausewitzian approach in his analysis, his 1911 Some Principles of Maritime Strategy remains his best remembered work. Emphasizing the benefits of the joint application of naval and military power in war, Corbett stressed “a whole of government approach” with finance, diplomacy and allies playing their role alongside the traditional fighting services. 

As influential as these two works remain, McCranie reminds us of the greater literature both writers bequeathed. With the perspective, argument, and appreciation of both evolving over time, readers do themselves little benefit—and Mahan and Corbett a disservice—if all they sample are their most noted works. Typically seen as counterpoints to each other, the author posits that the differences separating the two are not nearly so dramatic when their output is viewed in toto. That is surely the case, but fundamental differences nevertheless remain and nowhere is this the case more than when discussing the place of battle in naval warfare. To Corbett, battle was but a means to an end while Mahan saw battle as the very linchpin to securing command of the sea. That Britain possessed that command already which others now aspired to acquire offers a key reason why both observers could disagree on such a vital precept. In all this, national perspective and the intended audiences of their output shaped the writings of both.     

Just as Mahan never actually defined seapower before making the case for its influence, Corbett likewise failed to specify all the principles governing maritime strategy. These weaknesses are perhaps more readily appreciated by their successors and serves as a caution that no treatise is ever truly definitive. Such shortcomings aside, both advanced our understanding of the role of navies and the maritime dimension in warfare where economic factors assumed an importance strangely unappreciated by earlier military commentators. This alone makes their continued reading an essential foundation for those engaged in strategic problems. 

Living in an age of science, both quite naturally sought to make the understanding of war more scientific while appreciating it would forever remain an art. The taxonomy of the day was one factor why this remained the case, though perhaps a more likely cause was simply the fact sometimes they spoke past each other in their failure to be clear which level of war they were addressing. Here, Mahan was at disadvantage as his schooling, notwithstanding his Naval Academy grounding, was essentially the sea. Meanwhile, fitting for a trained advocate of the bar courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge, Corbett’s writings possess a logic and a precision often lacking with the American. As such, he refrained from employing the catchphrases commonly employed by his rival which tended to obscure as much as they revealed by their simplicity. 

At last ensconced as a lecturer at the Royal Naval War College in the immediate period before the World War, unteaching the baneful influence imparted by Mahan on British officers seemingly occupied Corbett’s time. Whether the latter’s influence had been similarly baneful when war at last arrived as posited by Lord Sydenham (George Clarke) following the fleet action at Jutland might have been considered by the author. In truth, the métier of both remained as historians of the past rather than as all-knowing seers of the future. This does not lessen the debt contemporary practitioners and strategists owe to each, but it does suggest the limits of their utility given the march of technology, the experience of successive conflicts and the collapse of the norms that governed their times. 

Illustrated with amplifying maps, diagrams and photographs while anchored in sound, thorough research based on primary sources and the secondary literature, Mahan, Corbett, and the Foundations of Naval Strategic Thought is a welcome addition to the literature of strategic studies and naval history in general and, as such, is warmly recommended to all.      

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BOOK REVIEW – Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II

Catherine Musemeche, Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. New York: Harper Collins, 2022. 394 pp.

Review by Dr. Gary Weir, PhD
Editor Emeritus, International Journal of Naval History

On Mary Sears’ eightieth birthday one of the grandfathers of American oceanography, Scripps’ director Roger Revelle, described her as a “force of nature.” In my own research as an historian of American oceanography I once discovered a letter written by the Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Columbus Iselin, that referred to her using the male personal pronoun, “he.” He never intended an insult. It accidentally betrayed his complete comfort with her as an influential colleague on par with his male associates. He simply failed to acknowledge any distinction between Mary Sears and the eminent male scientists who regularly populated Woods Hole. It became obvious to me very early in my research that she needed a history that would place her amazing career in perspective at a number of levels. Catherine Musemeche has provided that much needed treatment.

In a well-written and absorbing narrative, the author treats Mary Sears as a scientist whose career speaks to the twenty-first century in many significant ways. As a woman she had a difficult time claiming her right to practice as a scientist due to professional gender prejudice and the extraordinary superstition that kept women from taking their research to sea on board ship. With rare exceptions she had her research efforts circumscribed by these limits in a way that might have driven an ordinary marine biologist out of the field. Instead, she found exceptions to the rule, did extensive research in South American waters, collaborated with European colleagues after World War Two, and went on to set the standard for oceanographic research by founding and guiding some of the most important scientific journals in the field of oceanography, notably Deep-Sea Research. Still, she had to express a small measure of jealousy when, after the war, Elizabeth Bunce of Woods Hole finally broke the gender barrier as a scientific crew member on board WHOI’s R/V Atlantis and then as a chief scientist at sea. Unlike Bunce, whose outspoken style gave her an advantage, Sears exercised her quiet drive and determination ashore. A closer comparative study of their respective careers would certainly further illuminate the nature of the gender barriers in professional oceanographic circles.

Returning from a research expedition to Peru as the war started in December 1941, Sears joined the U.S. Navy as a WAVE and made a considerable impression on the course of the conflict as a leader in the Hydrographic Office, becoming the driving force behind the oceanographic component of the very important JANIS series of reports. These Joint Army and Navy Intelligence Surveys provided essential environmental intelligence in support of the amphibious actions in the Pacific, like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and those conducted on D-Day in Europe. 

Ms. Musemeche’s broad treatment of Mary Sears also places her main character in the company of an astonishing group of talented women at the Hydrographic Office, some of whom, like multi-lingual librarian Mary Catherine Grier, exploited little known or under-appreciated sources to supply information that made some of the Pacific landings possible with minimal casualties. The excellence and timeliness of their work quickly overcame initial doubts within the Navy as to their abilities. In the end their work, and that of Sears in particular, came to the notice of Admiral Nimitz and elicited unusual praise.

While unfairly relegated to the shore, Sears became an important part of the Woods Hole scientific scene. She became a senior and respected member of that scientific community in addition to rising to the rank of Commander in the postwar naval reserve. She served as a member of the Oceanographic Institution’s corporation for many years and with the journal Deep Sea Research, became an arbiter of quality in professional publication.

In a way one might expect from a semi-biographical treatment, this study provides the reader with personal information about its primary subject. Mary Sears emerged from a difficult childhood in New England to attend Radcliffe College and discover marine biology through the intersession of a truly eminent mentor, Henry Bryant Bigelow of Harvard and the first director of WHOI.

The value of this author’s treatment of Mary Sears rests with her emphasis on Sears’ personal determination, her devotion to science and country, and the way her experiences illustrate the hard road that many women had to travel if they wanted a career in science. In this study the section on the wartime Hydrographic Office emerges as particularly important. Here we see Mary Sears in context with her impressive colleagues. As a group they realized the potential in the JANIS reports before many others and the need to make them as deeply informative as possible. Human lives hung in the balance and Mary Sears knew that their science might permit many servicemen to return home after the hell that was Tarawa or Iwo Jima.

As you read this work, in your mind’s eye you will see Sears’ crew in the stacks at the Library of Congress, reviewing many prewar Japanese scientific publications and extracting information that might save lives. Then you will see them leave the library and wait for the city bus that would take them back to the Hydrographic Office facilities in Suitland, Maryland. It all appears hopelessly humble but proved terribly significant. Mary Sears joined the company of Maurice Ewing, John Lamar Worzel, Allyn Vine, Roger Revelle and many others who brought oceanography to the wartime Navy in a very practical way as an operational asset.

This reviewer very strongly recommends this treatment of Mary Sears. It offers an absorbing and significant story. It also suggests to historians of the female experience in American science other names from the wartime Hydrographic Office that deserve similar attention. These women made significant and creative contributions to the war effort that helped win the war and paved the way for a more complete postwar understanding of the ocean.

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BOOK REVIEW – George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander

Nicholas Jellicoe, George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2021. 336 pp.

Review by Dr. Frank Sobchk, PhD

George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander, offers a biographical narrative of a leader that, while he is not as widely recognized as David Stirling or David Lloyd Owen, played an equally important role in the development of British special operations forces. Jellicoe was the son of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who commanded the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and later became the First Sea Lord. George Jellicoe’s original plans to serve in the British Foreign Office were interrupted by World War II, and he quickly found his way to British elite forces, first the Commandos and then later as second in command of David Stirling’s legendary Special Air Service (SAS) during the North Africa campaign. The book details the organization’s early days especially well, providing new perspectives on Stirling and the SAS’s symbiotic relationship with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), with the former unit providing long range transport and the SAS providing a dismounted raiding capability against Axis airfields.  

The work’s real strength, however, is of Jellicoe’s role in the early days of the Special Boat Service (SBS). As the desert campaign wound down, the SAS was cleaved in two, with its former maritime element forming the basis for the SBS under the command of Jellicoe. The new unit was assigned the task of stirring up trouble in the Aegean and Adriatic, both towards its own end as well as to assist in a larger deception effort to draw German forces away from the Allies’ next objective: Italy. Shifting its headquarters to Mandatory Palestine, the SBS trained, planned, and prepared extensively before conducting incessant littoral raids as well as deeper forays into enemy territory. Years of conflict are presented, enumerating successes, stalemates, and disasters. When victory in Europe is finally apparent, Jellicoe and many of the SBS were drafted into trying to prevent the immediate ignition of a Greek Civil war between communist and non-communist elements. After the war, Jellicoe was able to live out his dream of working in the Foreign Service before having significant political and business careers.   

Authored by Nicholas Jellicoe, George’s son, the book is well written, interesting, and entertaining. Nicholas is honest about his father’s strengths, weaknesses, and foibles, which provides strength to the narrative and historical veracity. His examination was founded on countless cross-checked interviews (and he indicates where there are disagreements) as well as research of archival sources and individual documents. Maps are particularly well placed and numerous, and the author makes good use of summary boxes for areas where busier readers might be less interested in background details.  

The book also offers interesting historical reminders on the proper employment of special operations forces and insight into the development of their doctrine. With British elite forces, especially the Special Air Service, venerated by their American cousins, the book indirectly provides a window into how some of their practices were transferred to U.S. special operations units. For both the SAS and SBS, Jellicoe’s recounting provides numerous examples of headquarters that ill understood the capabilities of the elite units and, as a result, misused them. Lacking the imagination to understand the potential operational or strategic impacts the forces could have, a series of conventional commanders employed them more as raiders or elite infantry, unsurprisingly only producing marginal tactical results.  

Other commanders, such as General Bernard Montgomery, simply did not like the elite forces, seeing them as ill-disciplined and a drain of resources. Echoing lessons that American special operations forces would learn decades later, if not for the intervention of powerful patrons-often elected political leaders-the very survival of such units hung in the balance. In the case of the prolific British special forces units, such as the SAS, SBS, Long Range Desert Group, Special Operations Executive, and even the colorfully named Popski’s Private Army, such organizations earned the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill because of his inclination towards the indirect approach and desire to avoid a horrific repeat of World War I.

Altogether, George Jellicoe SAS and SBS Commander, is an excellent addition for the bookshelves of those interested in the first generation of modern special operations leaders and organizations. Not only is Jellicoe’s story well told and enjoyable to read, but it also provides applicable historical lessons for modern military leaders. In an era of compressed schedules and information limited to a set number of characters, its in depth study is well worth the time of both academics and practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW – Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.

Paul Stillwell, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. 368 pp.

Dr. Corbin Williamson, PhD
United States Air War College

While the most senior U.S. Navy admirals of World War II have been the subjects of biographical studies (King, Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance), mid-ranking admirals have been less well examined. Paul Stillwell seeks to correct that imbalance in this study of the Navy’s best known battleship commander of World War II, Vice Admiral Willis Lee, Jr. Stillwell relies on numerous oral histories and correspondence with members of Lee’s staff since Lee’s death in August 1945 made writing this work a challenge.

Lee grew up in Kentucky and demonstrated a marked intelligence at an early age. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1904 and soon became known as a crack marksman. The Navy’s line officer corps at the time was made up entirely of Academy graduates, so Lee made connections at Annapolis that stayed with him throughout his career. After graduation, Lee held several assignments related to marksmanship while also serving a tour in the western Pacific on the USS Helena, a gunboat. 

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Lee sought an assignment in Europe but arrived just after the 1918 armistice ended combat operations. He did participate in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium and won six gold medals in shooting competitions. Later that year he was promoted to lieutenant commander and took command of the destroyer USS Fairfax, stationed on the U.S. east coast. Lee held several commands in the 1920s including multiple destroyer-related assignments. In 1930 he began the first of several tours in the Fleet Training Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. During this first tour he revised the gunnery and tactical instructions that guided the fleet’s training activities. These training exercises received significant attention as their results could shape an officer’s career prospects.

In 1936 Lee took command of the light cruiser USS Concord. Stillwell uses Lee’s command of the Concord as a window to describe the interwar Navy. Specifically, Stillwell highlights how the Great Depression led many sailors to stay in the Navy for the security in pay the service provided. As a result, competition for senior enlisted jobs was intense which in turn meant senior enlisted sailors tended to be highly qualified and capable in the interwar Navy. During his command of the Concord Lee also began to recommend improvements in the Navy’s light anti-aircraft capabilities. During a further tour in the Fleet Training Division in 1940 and 1941 he helped improve anti-aircraft capabilities throughout the fleet.

Lee is best known for his command of the American battleship squadron that defeated the Japanese at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 14-15 November 1942. Stillwell demonstrates that Lee’s background in gunnery, interest in technical developments, and cool demeanor all helped him to successfully lead the U.S. force in the engagement. The battle helped secure American control of the waters around Guadalcanal, though the Japanese were able to withdraw their troops from Guadalcanal in early 1943 by sea.

Lee went on to command the fast battleship force that accompanied American carriers throughout the Central Pacific offensive from late 1943 into 1944. These battleships spent most of their time escorting carriers and providing naval gunfire support. As a result, when given the opportunity to engage the Japanese in a night surface action at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, Lee declined. He believed that his battleship force lacked the necessary training as a group to be effective in a night engagement. Stillwell highlights Lee’s good working relationship with the task force’s commanders, especially Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher.

Several months later, the U.S. Navy fought the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the Pacific War. Controversially, Admiral William Halsey fell for a Japanese diversion designed to pull away the force covering the American invasion armada from threats from the north. Stillwell describes how Lee twice sent messages to Halsey’s flagship highlighting the threat posed by Halsey’s decision to sail away to the north. However, Halsey’s staff did not act on these warnings and a Japanese force attacked American escort carriers before being driven off. Lee was frustrated at the engagement’s outcome. Leyte Gulf also saw the Japanese begin to employ kamikaze attacks on a large scale. In 1945 Lee was given the job of determining how best to counter the kamikazes and returned to the United States to carry out this task. However, he died in August 1945 in Portland, Maine of a heart attack.

Throughout the work, Stillwell emphasizes how Lee’s staff worked and related to one another. This emphasis reflects the extensive interviews and correspondence Stillwell conducted with those who knew Lee well. This wide-ranging research allows Stillwell to bring Lee to life and gives the reader a clear picture of Lee’s personality. The book is well written and provides a thoughtful portrayal of a lesser-known actor in the Pacific theater in World War II. Battleship Commander is recommended for interested general readers and scholars interested in the naval aspects of World War II.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

The views presented in this book review represent those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. For biographical studies of senior admirals see Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Boston: Little Brown, 1974); E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976); Thomas B. Buell, Master of Seapower: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980); and Thomas Hughes, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

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Grace Hopper: Computer Communicator (National History Day)

Tyler Kaus
National History Day

Tyler Kaus of Chadron Senior History School was honored in the History of Physical Sciences and Technology with his documentary entry titled, Grace Hopper: Computer Communicator. In an interview with local news in Chadron, NE, Tyler had this to say:

“I was introduced to National History Day in 6th grade. It was an opportunity for me to participate in an extracurricular activity that was not athletic-based. When I learned that I could use my computer skills it seemed like the perfect activity. In addition, I really enjoy history.

I decided to research Grace Hopper because I am interested in computer technology and programming. I chose a documentary because I felt there would be enough visuals to make the topic engaging. I feel it is important to study Grace Hopper. She made many contributions to Naval and women’s history. She also demonstrated the capabilities of women in a field that was primarily dominated by men. It was her contributions in the area of communications that created a legacy that shaped computer software development and will continue to make an impact on future computer technologies.

One of the things that surprised me [while researching Grace Hopper] was her sense of humor. After watching interviews and recorded lectures, her personality really came through. She was a very witty, no-nonsense lady. I would have loved to meet her or listen to her in person.

This National History Day project has been a valuable experience. I enjoyed the online archives and learning the research process. I also spent many hours developing my documentary to demonstrate her work and how it affects us today. I needed patience in order to create pieces, and line up my words, pictures, and effects. All of these skills will help me in the future.”

You can view the documentary by clicking HERE.

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Inside the Archives: Research Worth Diving Into: Significant Great Lakes Maritime Primary Source Collections at the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University 

Marian Matyn
Clarke Historical Library

As the Archivist and an Associate Professor at the Clarke Historical Library, I’m pleased to use this column to highlight some of the library’s Great Lakes Maritime history resources, documents, and collections from the 19th and 20th centuries. The Clarke is a historical library and archives established in 1954 at Central Michigan University (CMU), which began as a teacher normal school. We mainly collect Michigan history in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, Mackinaw to Lansing. The collection increased over time through the efforts of staff and donors from 1954 to present.

The Clarke’s maritime collections represent CMU’s deep connection to Michigan and all the Great Lakes. CMU cultural resource and history classes and maritime historians use the collections that encompass a wide range of topics of local, regional, and global interest from the collected research papers and resources of local historians and preservationists Dr. Charles E. and Jeri Baron Feltner to original documents that demonstrate the breadth, depth (both literally and figuratively) and dangers associated with Great Lakes shipping, shore work, transport, and everyday life.

In addition to materials similar to what you might locate at most repositories for maritime history, CHL houses oral histories connected to shore life and to the protection of maritime shipping and history. The Great Lakes Lighthouse collection, in particular, provides rare insights into how lighthouse keepers understood their role and their importance to the Lakes.

I am highlighting a few of the many collections I have processed and cataloged, making them available to researchers; some are available online and the remainder are currently available at the Clarke. The collections are accessible through our catalog ( and those with finding aids are available via online Google-searchable finding aids (

Figure 1: A finely detailed, professional drawing of Walk-in-the-Water. The first steamer on Lake Erie, Huron and Michigan, graces the top of the original June 21, 1819 manifest printed on rag paper. (Clarke Historical Library)

While the Clarke has a number of original and microfilmed manifests, this one is individually boxed and cataloged because it is the only one with a drawing, and because of what the drawing represents. Created by an unidentified artist, the dynamic drawing depicts the vessel’s departure from Mackinac to Black Rock, New York; the ship appears underway, with sails full and the steam funnel pumping smoke. Her voyage represented a turning point in Great Lakes maritime history, illustrating major technological change and possibility. 

Michiganders in 1819 realized that steamers would facilitate and accelerate the shipping of people and goods for economic and regional development, as the Territory of Michigan was propelled toward statehood (in 1837). Thus, an artist was hired before the vessel left Mackinac, and someone, we presume the ship’s owners, ? printed a special manifest on a printing press, including the drawing. Time, thought, and funds were prioritized and organized to create this item. Many early original manifests no longer exist. The Walk-in-the-Water’s survived, carefully preserved for more than two centuries by Michigan maritime historians who recognized the vessel’s identity as a marker of changing maritime history.

Image 2: Full manifest of the Walk-in-the-Water, June 21, 1819, printed on rag paper. (Clarke Historical Library)

As respected, dedicated researchers, as well as writers and editors on the maritime history of all five Great Lakes, the Feltners were instrumental in establishing the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum and preserving the DeTour Reef Light (lighthouse). They donated their personal papers and research notes to the Clarke and the 61 boxes of the Dr. Charles E. and Jeri Baron Feltner Great Lakes Maritime History Collection, 1978-2018, holds wide appeal for maritime enthusiasts. Among the first to document many Great Lakes shipwrecks, the Feltner’s documentation is unique, detailing not just their findings, but the early days of maritime research and recovery with new tools and technologies. Research topics you can dip into include: the detailed history of hundreds of vessels which sailed on or sank in all of the Great Lakes through the late 20th century, Great Lakes deep diving, maritime history (American and Canadian), shipping history, major Great Lakes storms of 1905 and 1913, rare insurance materials, marine casualties, merchant vessels, certificates of enrollment, sailing, shipbuilding/construction, and underwater logging.

From a surface skim to a deep dive, the Feltners’ Digital Great Lakes Maritime History collection, though a single box, includes a 2018 DVD of their 1999 deep dives to the shipwrecks of the steamer Eber Ward and the brig Sandusky. The dive recorded the ship’s near pristine condition and shows the cover of invasive mussels. Play the DVD and you can explore, virtually, the stunning wrecks, sunk deeply in the Straits of Mackinaw. Great Lakes marine historians and divers watch the films to understand how the wrecks looked before the mussels obscured their details and the mussel invasion shows the rapid change to Great Lakes ecology.

Luedtke Engineering Company Organizational Records (Frankfort, Mich.), 1932-2009, in 375 boxes, documents the history of the leading marine construction firm in all the Great Lakes and Midwest. You can plunge the depths of the Job series to explore every completed job with records detailing bids, contracts, communications, architectural drawings, and site photographs. The completeness of the records allows a researcher to understand the growth of port cities over decades based on how and when their marinas, piers, or breakwaters were built, continuously expanded, and modernized to accommodate growing marine traffic, the shift of the maritime economy into tourism, as well as efforts to protect shorelines from erosion.

If coastal history is your area of expertise, you can find amazing resources in the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) 21 boxes of Organizational Records, 1984-2007, regarding all Great Lakes Lighthouses, their preservation work on St. Helena, oral histories GLLKA volunteers conducted with GLLKs and their families in multiple locations, numerous publications and resource guides. These oral histories are some of the numerous, wide ranging recordings in Clarke

Related collections you might enjoy reading—or sinking into for research include those of GLLKA founder Dick Moehl and GLLKA member Sandra L. Planisek, who planned, created, and initially operated the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum on the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLGB-83), moored in Mackinaw City.

Or, focus on the 25 boxes of Captain William C. Bacon’s Michigan Car Ferries Collection, 1883-2010. Ferries were the fastest means of transporting people and goods between Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as between the two peninsulas of Michigan for over 100 years until the Mackinac Bridge was erected in 1957. 

For over 32 years Captain Bacon served the Ann Arbor Railroad Company that operated a ferry line. He collected extensively on the history of Michigan car ferries, car ferry companies, and car ferry port cities, using his insider knowledge of the companies to build his collection. A history of the line, and each ferry put into service can be seen in the photographs, blueprints, correspondence, certificates of inspection and enrollment, logbooks, sales, reconstruction, and casualty records, and keys within the collection.

Image 3: Keys from the Michigan Car Ferry collection. (Clarke Historical Library)

Finally, you might immerse yourself in the construction of the Soo Locks, a major passageway for Great Lakes vessels, constructed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The archives staff created a database for the collection after digitizing 1,731 glass plate negatives from the years 1885-1941. The database enables researchers to browse or use keyword searches to find the people and vessels that helped build the locks, the ships that passed through, or ships involved in accidents, ( For example, a keyword search for the Susan E. Peck retrieves the image below, originally titled “Wreck of Steamer Susan E. Peck w Schooner Geo. W. Adams, Oct. 12, 1891.”

Image 4: Wreck of Steamer Susan E. Peck w Schooner Geo. W. Adams, Oct. 12, 1891 retrieved from the Soo Locks collection database. (Clarke Historical Library)

The Clarke continues to collect Great Lakes maritime history collections and we welcome donations. If you are interested in any of this material or would like to find out more about CMU’s maritime holdings, contact Marian at

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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Inside the Archives: United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Archives

Aleksandr Gelfand
Archives and Records Management Section (ARMS)

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

The archives of the United Nations covers four broad areas: the Secretaries-General, Secretariat Departments, Peacekeeping Missions, and Predecessor Organizations. The archives are arranged into Series which fall under larger archival groups (or “Fonds”) that are derived from the particular office or agency that created them. The creating agency can be a United Nations department, mission, panel or body, Secretary-General, or other United Nations functional unit. 

I am proud to highlight the archive’s collection of materials related to one predecessor organization, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration – UNRRA. UNRRA’s mandate ended in 1947 and it was liquidated in 1948. Its records, at the time estimated to number more than 50 million pages, were transferred to the newly established United Nations in New York. Today, more than 3,000 linear feet of its records, including approximately 10,000 photographs are available for research. These include files dealing with supply, procurement, and shipping operations, as well as repatriation and care of displaced persons stranded around the world, and the efforts to draft and administer the 1944 International Sanitary Conventions. 

On March 12, 1945, a ship sailed from the United States for Europe carrying relief supplies destined for Poland. It was one of the first chartered by the United Nations Relief and Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and would soon turn into a flood of ships, which carried the majority of the more than 24 million tons of supplies sent by UNRRA to 17 receiving countries. 

Founded in November 1943 by 44 allied states (popularly styled the “United Nations”), the main tasks of the organization were to provide assistance to members who had been invaded by the Axis powers. Aid took the form of food and clothing; assistance in the resumption of urgently needed agricultural and industrial production, as well as other essential services; and help in the repatriation of displaced persons (DPs). 

With missions and procurement offices in 42 countries, purchased or donated material was soon arriving in ports throughout North and South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia. To handle the largest relief operation up to that point in history, UNRRA grew to eventually encompass almost 25,000 staff members supported by a massive logistics infrastructure. 

The millionth ton of UNRRA foodstuffs unloaded in China from the freighter Paul David Jones, which carried wheat from the US to Shanghai (S-0801-0001-11-00029, UN Archives)

Once requested supplies reached the port of departure, UNRRA would officially take responsibility, which would only be relinquished once they reached their port of delivery. Early on, a decision had been made to employ private firms for the various aspects of shipping operations, with ships mainly chartered on a single trip basis. Some cargo, however, required special accommodation. As part of agricultural rehabilitation, UNRRA shipped thousands of animals to Europe and Asia, requiring specially configured vessels. Following an agreement with the War Shipping Administration (WSA), 71 ships, mostly Victory and Liberty types built en masse by the United States during the war, were converted for that purpose. Transportation of trains required additional specialized vessels, which were found in brand new Norwegian Belships. One such ship carried 48 completely erected locomotives and 48 tenders in a single UNRRA chartered voyage.

[Left] UNRRA mules, hoisted on board in pairs, start their voyage to Greece to replace draft animals lost in the war (S-0800-0003-0001-00028, UN Archives); [Right] Norwegian train ship SS Beljeanne (S-0801-0011-0001-00030, UN Archives)

The delivery process was anything but smooth sailing. Many of the destination ports in Europe and Asia were left devastated by the war, making unloading a great problem, forcing ships to dock in much more distant harbors. Some ports, such as those in Albania could not accommodate the large ships used, forcing a transit stop in Italy, where the supplies were reloaded onto smaller vessels. Multiple representatives of receiving nations in ports, such as Trieste, were on site to take custody of the cargo and ensure that no pilfering occurred as the supplies were unloaded and sent onwards to their final destinations. For landlocked countries, such as Czechoslovakia, this was an especially pertinent problem: its relief supplies had to travel from 15 different ports, which were under 11 different sovereignties. 

The emergency on the ground meant that supplies had to be shipped quickly, with multiple ships en route or being loaded at any given time. In Italy, at the height of the program, an UNRRA campaign touted that three ships were arriving daily. The speed and volume with which the material was delivered sometimes created backlogs at destination ports, forcing UNRRA to scramble to divert supplies elsewhere, acquire warehouse facilities, and delay sailings. One such incident happened in China in July 1946, when 15 ships already en route and 17 more scheduled to sail the same month had to be rerouted and delayed.

“Tre navi al giorno” – “Three ships a day” – display symbolizing international character of UNRRA shipments to Italy (S-0800-0003-0009-00010, UN Archives)

Since sailings had to be undertaken year-round, at times weather was less than cooperative. In early 1947, the Baltic Sea froze as 5,000 horses from the United States were on their way to Poland. One of the vessels became icebound and others were forced to divert. By the time they were able to make it to their final destination, losses for each vessel ranged from 5-to-25 percent. However, the overall losses of livestock shipments of the entire program ultimately amounted to only 3.8 percent.  

As port facilities were repaired and expanded, most of the cargo made it to its destination on time and in good condition. For the first eight months of 1946, UNRRA was the largest single exporter in the world, with more than one million gross long tons shipped each month from the Western Hemisphere.

Relief supplies were not the only cargo carried by UNRRA chartered ships. World War II had created millions of refugees who now had to be aided in their return. Although the majority were repatriated via trains and other ground transportation, tens of thousands had to be transported by seaborn vessels. The shortest and easiest voyages involved displaced persons housed in UNRRA run DP camps in the Middle East and entailed a relatively short trip via the Mediterranean Sea.

[Left] A game organized for DP children on deck during the trip from El Shatt Camp to Yugoslavia (S-0800-0010-0015-0034, UN Archives); [Right] Yugoslav refugees see their homeland from aboard a ship (S-0800-0010-0015-0038, UN Archives)

Longer trips proved far more complicated and involved multiple layovers. Logistics for Greek DPs in Africa, Jewish refugees from Austria in China, Polish DPs in India, Mexico, Iran, and New Zealand, as well as multiple other nationalities, had to be organized and coordinated at a time of a general shortage of passenger shipping. The multiyear process was still in progress when the responsibility for DPs was transferred from UNRRA to the newly established International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1947.

Maritime declaration of health form draft (S-1271-0000-0067-2, UN Archives)

In additional to being a major client of the shipping industry, UNRRA had a considerable critical impact on maritime sanitation policies and procedures when it was tasked with drafting revised International Sanitary Conventions in 1944. When the Conventions were adopted the next year, UNRRA became their administrator, serving as a point of contact for all member states. Among the changes that the Conventions brought about were, standardizing an international form of certificate of inoculation for travel by sea, land, and air; increasing the distance at which certain ships had to be moored from the shore; and stipulating the quarantine measures for persons without a valid inoculation certificate. UNRRA administered the Conventions until the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO), which inherited that role in 1948.

Maritime health information provided to UNRRA by New Zealand UNRRA (S-1271-0000-0069-1, UN Archives)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section, has made over 800,000 digitized pages of UNRRA records available. They can all be viewed online via the Archives’ catalog. 

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Officers in the ‘Fishpond’ and their Roles in the Royal Navy of the Fisher Era 1904-1919

Henrikki Tikkanen
Aalto University School of Business


Admiral Sir John Fisher was the leading figure behind the considerable reforms that took place in the Royal Navy before and during the First World War. Britain was engaged in a costly naval arms race with Imperial Germany during the Fisher era of 1904-1919. The controversial admiral surrounded himself with a network of followers who were tangential to the success and continuation of many of his reforms. This network has been termed the ‘Fishpond’. It is often seen as a valuable resource for Fisher, enabling him to realize his organizational reforms. On the other hand, derogatory perspectives also prevail, as a ‘Syndicate of Discontent’ was formed to oppose Fisher’s designs. This article examines the role of the Fishpond in relation to the official institutions of the RN. Who were the most influential officers in the Fishpond and how did their careers evolve under Fisher’s patronage? What were their roles in carrying out Fisher’s reforms? Finally, how effective was the Fishpond in general as a ‘tool’ in the reform process of the RN, especially in the face of the fierce internal opposition to it?

HMS Britannia at Dartmouth (Wikimedia Commons)


Naval history, Sir John Fisher, Fishpond, strategic leadership, the Royal Navy

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, (1841-1920) was the leading figure behind the considerable technological and organizational reforms that took place in the Royal Navy (RN) before and during the First World War (WWI).1  Britain was engaged in a costly naval arms race with Imperial Germany during the Fisher era of 1904-1919.2  The reforms he initiated have often been termed Sir John Fisher’s naval revolution3 , and a vivid historiographical debate has ensued as to the strategic emphasis, effectiveness and the role of Fisher himself in instituting the process of significant organizational change within the RN4 . Historiographical debates notwithstanding, Fisher served from 1886 to 1903 as Director of Naval Ordnance, Third Sea Lord and Controller, and Second Sea Lord, and as the Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. In these positions, he could observe and occasionally compensate for the shortcomings in the materiel, education and manning of the fleet. More importantly, when he took over as First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty in October 1904 he was free to devise a much more ambitious and holistic scheme of reforms.5  During his first tenure as First Sea Lord in 1904-1910 he realized several major administrative and technological reforms. For instance, he introduced the Dreadnought model of powerful all-big-gun capital ships that made earlier capital-ship designs practically obsolete. He had a short second stint as First Sea Lord during the War in 1914-1915 when, among other things, he succeeded in re-commencing the construction of battlecruisers, his favourite design of capital ship.6   

However, as a leader Lord Fisher was a deeply controversial figure. Headstrong and visionary, occasionally petty and vindictive, he invoked both admiration and hatred among the officers of the RN. On the one hand, he was very effective in gathering a loyal network of followers from all walks of life in the British Empire to support his designs. This network extended within and beyond the ranks of the RN, and ranged from King Edward VII to some key politicians, courtiers and influential journalists. Fisher effectively used publicity and the media to advance his cause. More importantly, his network comprised some of the most talented officers of the RN who were essential to the success and continuation of many of his reforms. This coterie of more-or-less loyal followers has often been termed the ‘Fishpond’. 

Nevertheless, a ‘Syndicate of Discontent’ formed around the disillusioned admirals Lord Charles Beresford and Reginald Custance during Fisher’s first period as First Sea Lord, fuelled by his ruthless ways of working. A ‘Great Edwardian Naval Feud’ ensued, seriously dividing the RN into two opposing camps.7  In 1909, Beresford succeeded in convincing Prime Minister H.H. Asquith that a formal inquiry would be needed to investigate some key Admiralty policies.8  Fisher emerged victorious from the inquiry, but he was practically forced to step down in January 1910. He continued in an advisory capacity and as a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence until his second period as First Sea Lord in 1914. After his unseemly resignation in May 1915 primarily due to the failed Dardanelles campaign, his influence swiftly declined. However, he continued to serve as the chairman of the Government’s Board of Invention and Research (B.I.R.). Other men, most significantly the members of his Fishpond, continued and modified many of his reforms.

The Fishpond is mentioned in a large number of memoirs, biographies and historical studies.9  It is often perceived as a valuable resource that enabled Fisher to realize his organizational reforms, although derogatory appraisals are also prevalent. Fisher was often accused of favouritism and nepotism, and it has been argued that membership of or at least affiliation with the Fishpond was a prerequisite for an officer’s career success during the Fisher era. Although this might not have been entirely accurate, it has been pointed out that members of the Fishpond constituted a more talented batch of officers than those excluded from it. Fisher clearly wanted to handpick resourceful individuals to work on his reforms. However, the division between the progressives he embodied and the conservatives led by Beresford was by no means clear-cut.10  Many young pro-Fisher officers, such as Herbert Richmond, later became critical of the old admiral seeing, for instance, his preoccupation with materiel as an obstacle to true reform.11 

The aim in this article is to provide answers to the following research questions. What was the Fishpond in relation to the official structures and institutions of the RN? Who were the key and most influential officers in the Fishpond? How did their careers evolve in terms of carrying out Fisher’s central reforms? All in all, how effective was the Fishpond as a ‘tool’ in the process of reforming the RN, especially in the face of the fierce internal opposition to many of Fisher’s major reforms?

The article is based on the following groups of primary and secondary materials. The first group comprises unpublished and published primary materials. Thus, the unpublished12  and published professional and personal papers of admiral Fisher13 , the papers of Admirals of the Fleet John Jellicoe14  and David Beatty15 , both of whom acted as Commanders-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet and as First Sea Lords during the War or immediately thereafter, were consulted. What is more, the edited papers of Sir Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and of the War Cabinet16 , Hankey’s unpublished papers in the Churchill Archives at the University of Cambridge17 , the unpublished papers of Admiral of the Fleet Prince Louis of Battenberg, First Sea Lord 1912-191418 , and Winston S. Churchill’s papers on naval matters in the Churchill Archives at the University of Cambridge were consulted19 .

The second group of materials includes Fisher’s memoirs and biographies,20  and the extant memoirs and/or biographies of the key RN officers involved either in the Fishpond or in the upper echelons of the RN in general. Among the most important of these are the memoirs and biographies of Jellicoe21 , Beatty22 , Fisher’s greatest adversary Lord Charles Beresford23 , Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (First Sea Lord, 1910-1911)24 , Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman (First Sea Lord, 1911-1912)25 , Admiral of the Fleet Prince Louis of Battenberg (First Sea Lord, 1912-1914)26 , Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Jackson (First Sea Lord, 1915-1916)27 , Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver (Chief of Staff during the most of WWI)28  and Admiral Sir Percy Scott, the inventor of the Scott director firing system29.  The biography of Admiral Herbert Richmond, 30  as well as the autobiography of Admiral Reginald Bacon were also consulted31 . 

The third group comprises the key sources used to shed light on the organization and leadership of the RN during the Fisher era. It included studies on key admirals at the upper echelons of the RN organization32 , the organization of the British Admiralty33  and its initiative-suppressing culture34 , on the emergence of the naval staff after its belated inception in 1912 due to vehement opposition from First Sea Lords Fisher and Wilson35 , its strategy and war planning36 , and on Admiralty plans to counter the German threat37. 

The Admiralty Organization, Fisher’s Reforms and the Fishpond

In what follows, the central institutions of the British Admiralty are described in terms of the regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning in any given social setting38. The formal organization of the RN and its rules, culture and norms, and the central beliefs related to the use of favouritism in the upper echelons of the organization are briefly discussed in line with institutional theory39. The aim is to shed light on the context within which Fisher’s reforms took place and where he applied his own version of favouritism.    

The British Admiralty was governed by the Board of Admiralty during the Fisher era of 1904-1919. The Board consisted of three political members (First Lord, Civil Lord, and Financial Secretary) and various professional members (the Sea Lords, the Permanent Secretary and some civilian professionals). After 1912, a Naval War Staff was formed under the leadership of the First Sea Lord and a separate Chief-of-Staff. It was renamed Naval Staff in 1917, and the First Sea Lord also assumed the role of the COS. Many supplementary committees (such as Fisher’s original Committee on Designs 1904-1907) supported the work of the formal institutions.40   

Within the British Admiralty, the First Sea Lord was the admiral who directed all strategic, tactical and organizational RN matters, assisted by three (later four) subordinate Sea Lords41. The civilian First Lord was primarily a political figurehead who rarely interfered in professional matters: Winston S. Churchill, who served in 1911-1915, was an exception in this respect. The Second Sea Lord was responsible for the manning and training of the fleet, the Third Sea Lord and Controller for the provision of materiel, including ships and their armament, and the Fourth Sea Lord for supplies and transport (the Fifth Sea Lord was later responsible for the Naval Air Arm).42  As I will demonstrate below, most officers in the Fishpond centrally worked as Sea Lords at some point during their careers. 

HMS Dreadnought (1906)

The positions of the Director of Naval Construction, the Engineer-in-Chief, the Director of Naval Ordnance, the Director of Dockyards and of Stores, and the Inspector of Dockyard Expense Accounts, which were under the governance of the Department of the Controller, were also central figures in the strategic leadership of the RN. The DNCs and DNOs were of tantamount importance to Fisher and his reforms. He worked with two eminent civilian DNCs: Sir Philip Watts (1902-1912, designing HMS Dreadnought and the Queen Elizabeth class of fast battleships, for example) and Sir Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt (1912-1924, designing the Renown class of battlecruisers and HMS Hood, for example).43  Fisher thanks both men heartily in his Memories.44   The Director of Naval Ordnance was another position very closely related to the duties of the Director of Naval Construction, responsible for everything related to guns, gun-mountings, magazines, torpedo apparatus, electrical fittings for guns and other electrical fittings. 45  As I will show, many officers in the Fishpond essentially worked as DNOs and assistant DNOs in bringing about some of Fisher’s most important technological reforms and innovations.

In sum, Fisher’s post-1904 reform scheme entailed the scrapping of more than 150 obsolete men-of-war around the Empire, the creation of a Reserve Fleet with nucleus crews, the redistribution and concentration of RN fleets to home waters to counter the increasing German threat, and the introduction of many novel technologies into naval warfare, most significantly the Dreadnought battleship and the battlecruiser. Contrary to common assumptions, Fisher was, in fact, critical of battleships, and emphasized the importance of the torpedo and the submarine.46  Although many of his reforms proved controversial, and some appeared to have failed miserably, there is a consensus among historians that, in general, Fisher and his team was able to turn around the RN from its languid state before war broke out. 

Robert L. Davison provides an analysis of the profound change in the officer corps of the RN during the period of 1880-1919.47  Most significantly, the rapidly developing naval technology and military professionalization created a need for fundamental change in the recruitment and education of officers in general, and engineer-officers in particular. The social and economic upheavals in Britain also meant that more officers were drawn from outside of the nobility and the upper classes. The leadership of the navy became a matter for public debate both in the media and in Parliament. All in all, there was an increasing emphasis on capability over social position and personal contacts in achieving promotion and success. This change was not easy, however, and the RN of the pre-Fisher era seemingly lacked the institutions and impartial procedures to ensure the promotion of the ablest individuals.48  What is more, the traditional culture of the RN emphasized the following of orders to the letter, and thus strongly suppressed subordinates’ own judgment and initiative.49  Fisher wanted to profoundly change the prevailing organizational culture of the RN, and especially the way in which officers were promoted to key positions.

Thus, the often-derided Fishpond essentially provided Fisher with the means to realize many of his hotly debated reforms. However, he still advanced the careers of its members by means of favouritism, not unlike the common practice in the 19th century, the difference being that those who were promoted were young, bright and personally loyal to their patron rather that men with family and social connections.50  Extant historical analyses have shown how civil servants, including RN officers, moved from the traditional patronage culture towards increased bureaucratization and professionalization in mid-19th century Britain.51  However, at the beginning of the 20th century the RN was still largely dominated by highly subjective officer-promotion methods that were heavily reliant on the opinion of superiors, especially in the case of candidates for the upper echelons of the organization. A positive perspective on favouritism is adopted in this article: it allows leaders to ensure the functioning of the organization in situations in which it is impossible to accurately and objectively monitor and incentivize subordinate behaviour and performance.52  This may apply, in particular, to the formation of well-functioning top-management teams for the visionary leadership of organizations. Favouritism may be a tacit-knowledge-based mechanism for ensuring that the right people occupy the right positions, especially in times of rapid and forceful change.53 

In general, Fisher was distrustful of the staff organization that was proposed for the RN at the beginning of the 20th century, a General Staff for the Army having been created in 1904.54  Although making some supporting gestures, he thought that a formal staff organization would constitute an intelligence hazard at the time of naval information leaks. What is more, he wanted to surround himself with trusted people he could choose himself, rather than relying on the establishment of a formal staff bureaucracy in the Prussian style. What he wanted was essentially a loosely-knit ‘brains trust’ instead of a formalized staff as the ‘brain of an army’55 . The informal system that worked well for him for some time, however, quickly broke down under his successor, the autocratic and unapproachable Admiral Wilson. Consequently, a Naval War Staff was created in 1912 to formalize the analysis and planning at the Admiralty.56  Many Fishpond members contributed to the establishment and institutionalization of the staff organization, which were far from straightforward tasks. 

The Fishpond comprised a wide-ranging collection of senior and junior officers both on land and at sea, including civil servants within the naval organization. Fisher also had a talent for recruiting ‘affiliate’ members into his personal network, who would be useful for his undertakings. As mentioned, these ranged from King Edward VII to key politicians, industrialists and representatives of the media. The focus in this article, however, is on the role of the relatively few high-ranking Fishpond officers in the upper echelons of the RN. All of them except for Bacon and Scott advanced to the highest naval rank of the Admiral of the Fleet.

The Fishpond: Key Personages, Careers and Roles 

The following members of the Fishpond were the key affiliates Fisher primarily worked with before and during his first stint as First Sea Lord in 1904-1910.57  Many of them also held important positions at the Admiralty or afloat during the War and after it. They were, on average, 17 years younger than Fisher (Scott 12 years and Bacon 22 years). In what follows, the officers are portrayed in terms of their careers and major achievements, especially in the light of Fisher’s key reforms, focusing also on personality, leadership style and their relationship with Fisher.

Prince Louis of Battenberg

Perhaps the most influential Fishpond member before the War broke out, and an early and loyal follower of Fisher was Admiral of the Fleet Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg (after 1917, 1st Marquess Mountbatten of Milford Haven, 1854-1921). A German prince of royal blood, albeit always also a British subject due to his close family relations with the British royal family (he was a grandson of Queen Victoria), Louis entered the RN at the age of fourteen in 1868. He quickly proved a resourceful and reliable officer with excellent social skills and connections, not least due to his high birth. Prince Louis was promoted to the rank of Captain at the relatively young age of 37 in 1891.58  In addition to captaining several men-of-war in diverse stations around the Empire, he acted as a liaison officer between the army and the navy, and as joint secretary of an organ that was later to develop into the Committee of Imperial Defence. He was appointed Assistant Director of the Naval Intelligence Division in 1899. What is more, he acted as an aide-de-camp to three monarchs: Victoria, Edward VII and George V.59   

Fisher Postcard Image (Courtesy of the Author)

Prince Louis became more deeply acquainted with Fisher when he was acting as the captain of the battleship HMS Implacable in the Mediterranean Fleet, of which Fisher was the Commander-in-Chief. Fisher immediately recognized the wide-ranging abilities of the noble prince, which ranged from technical know-how to tactical and literary skills.60  Prince Louis was appointed Director of Naval Intelligence in 1902, and was promoted to Rear Admiral in July 1904, shortly before Fisher rose to power as the First Sea Lord in October. In his biography of Louis of Battenberg, Richard Hough argues that the prince essentially acted behind the scenes, using his connections in high society to get the controversial Fisher appointed as First Sea Lord in 1904.61  Fisher had previously made many enemies within the RN: as Second Sea Lord, for example, he instituted the controversial Selborne scheme, a novel concept for officer recruitment and training.62   

Prince Louis was given the command of the Second Cruiser Squadron in 1905, and in 1907 he took over as acting Vice Admiral and Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was promoted to Vice Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet in 1908. The size of the Fleet was considerably diminished following Fisher’s efforts to concentrate the most powerful ships in the North Sea to counter the increasing threat from the German Imperial Navy.63  Louis returned to the Admiralty as Second Sea Lord in December 2011, in charge of creating an Admiralty War Staff, which Fisher and Wilson had refused to do. He was promoted to Full Admiral in July 1912, and further appointed to succeed Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman64  as First Sea Lord in December 1912.65  The young and dynamic First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, endorsed Prince Louis’ appointment thinking that he would be less dogmatic than Fisher but more dynamic than either of his immediate predecessors Bridgeman and Wilson. What is more, with the malleable prince at the professional helm of the Senior Service, Churchill became the de facto strategist at the top of the Admiralty. First Lords thus far had rarely interfered in professional questions concerning ordnance and materiel, for example. Churchill, however, going against Fisher’s advice, decided in 1912 to drop battlecruiser construction altogether in favour of the fast battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class.66  On many occasions, however, the diplomatic Battenberg was able to moderate for instance the relationship between the First Lord and flag officers on the Admiralty Board. The latter were often exasperated by Churchill’s impulsive interferences in professional matters.67   

On the other hand, the organization of the war staff continued to possess serious structural flaws that were not modified until 1917. The key leaders at the top pondered the workings of the new naval war staff immediately before the war, but no structural changes were yet made. They thought it was up to the individuals in leading roles (such as the COS) to continuously develop better ways of working.  A burning problem was that the Chief of the War Staff had no direct authority as he was not a Board member. What is more, the formal structure of the staff was over-centralized as everything had to pass through the COS, and many new staff officers were deemed unfit for their duties due to insufficient education in staff work. A Royal Navy Staff course at the War College was instituted in 1912 but proved slow to make progress in staff officer training. 68 

According to Andrew Lambert, towards the end of his stint as First Sea Lord the apathetic and increasingly physically ill Prince Louis proved to be a disaster, especially in conjunction with the young and energetic but inexperienced Churchill. “No cabinet advised by Fisher would have made such a blundering, incompetent, disastrous response to the July Crisis.”69  The Germans clearly did not anticipate that Britain would follow its entente partners France and Russia into a continental war, even if the neutrality of Belgium were violated by the German Army. In line with his earlier intentions, and not least because of the strong anti-German sentiment among the British public and press, Churchill decided to discharge Prince Louis and to recall Fisher as First Sea Lord in late October 1914.70  Prince Louis felt immensely relieved following his dismissal. Before stepping down, he and the old Beresfordian and Admiralty Chief-of-Staff Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee had made the fateful decision to send Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock’s obsolete cruisers to fight against the superior German East Asian Squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee. This resulted in a humiliating British defeat at Coronel near the Chilean coast on the 1st of November, 1914.71  Prince Louis had no official position during the rest of the war, and in December 1918, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, another old anti-Fisher officer, strongly suggested he should retire, which he did on the 1st of January, 1919. Just a few weeks before his death in September 1921, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet on the Retired List.72  

Arthur Marder describes Prince Louis as “…a first-rate, all-round seaman, a born leader, an efficient, even brilliant tactician and strategist (he was not defeated in manouvres until 1912)”.73  However, as an administrator at the Admiralty he proved at least slightly less effective than as a seaman. The problems during his last months as First Sea Lord at the beginning of the War (the Goeben incident, the sinking of the three old Créssy class cruisers and the increasing submarine menace, as well as the crushing defeat at Coronel) easily overshadow his earlier successes such as building and organizing the entire Grand Fleet. In Fisher’s view, Prince Louis seemed occasionally to be so much under Churchill’s influence that he described the First Sea Lord as “Winston’s facile dupe”, which of course was a gross  exaggeration.74  Although a Fisher loyalist, he demonstrated the ability to adapt his views in accordance with changing situations. He also detested the harsh way in which Fisher endorsed his views and suppressed criticism. As Prince Louis put it in a letter to a fellow officer as early as in 1905: 

“…I do cordially agree with all you say, especially the fever which has seized hold of J.F. … also the senseless way in which he insults and alienates our senior men.”75 

Throughout the years, Mountbatten’s relationship with Fisher always remained relatively harmonious and mutually respectful. However, despite sincerity about professional matters, a certain formal tone and distance, absent e.g. from Fisher’s correspondence with his onetime First Lord and close friend Reginald McKenna, always persisted in their correspondence76 . Fisher was the master and Prince Louis the apprentice.

Sir John Jellicoe

Admiral of the Fleet John Rushworth Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe of Scapa (1859-1935) was Fisher’s self-evident favourite to command the Grand Fleet in the event of war.[1. “…I just mention all this to show what I’ve done for Jellicoe because I knew him to be a born Commander of a Fleet! Like poets. Fleet Admirals are born, not made! Nascitur nonfit!”; Fisher, Memoirs, 63; in a letter to Winston Churchill on the 30th of July 1913 Fisher strongly praised Jellicoe’s qualities as a potential wartime admiralissimo: “…the sacred fire of originality burns in him.”, CHAR 13/21/69; see also Fisher’s letter to Reginald McKenna in December 1911, in which he predicts a war with Germany in September 1914 and Jellicoe as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet (“So I sleep quiet in my bed!”), Marder (ed.) Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, 419.]  Jellicoe joined the RN in 1872 and fought as a young officer in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Promoted to Captain in January 1897, he immediately became a member of the Ordnance Committee of the Admiralty. During the Boxer Rebellion in China, he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Beicang on the 5th of August 1900. As a recognized ordnance specialist, Captain Jellicoe became Naval Assistant to the Third Naval Lord and Controller in 1902. 77   

Fisher made Sir John Jellicoe, one of his famous ‘seven brains’78 , the Director of Naval Ordnance in 1905, Second-in-Command of the Atlantic Fleet in August 1907, Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy in October 1908, and Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet in December 1910.  In fact, Jellicoe succeeded Prince Louis in many of these key appointments. 

After Fisher’s retirement in January 1910, Jellicoe was appointed Second-in-Command of the Home Fleet in December 1911 and, having also been appointed Commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron in May 1912, became Second Sea Lord in December 1912. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1907 and to Vice Admiral in 1911, consequently79 .

At the outbreak of the Great War, as Fisher had originally planned, Jellicoe was immediately assigned to the command of the renamed Grand Fleet, replacing the aging Admiral George Callaghan. In the same process, he was promoted to Full Admiral on the 4th of August 1914.80   He commanded the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, where his cautionary actions and failure to annihilate the German High Seas Fleet were later seriously criticized by the pro-Beatty faction. On the other hand, as Churchill’s famous adage goes, Jellicoe was after all “the only man who could lose the war in one afternoon”, and he obviously did not want to jeopardize the material supremacy of the RN with daring moves in any battle. What is more, he deployed his vast fleet in an exemplary manner at the height of the battle and crossed his German opponent Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s T twice.81  Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord in November 1916 but was forced to step down from the post already in December 1917, partly because he refused to dismiss his fellow Fishpond member Bacon from the command of the Dover Patrol.82  Jellicoe was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in April 1919.  After the War, he served as the Governor-General of New Zealand.83  

Sir John Jellicoe’s character is often described as calm, rational and unassuming. He was seemingly highly appreciated by his officers and on the lower deck. On the other hand, he was unable to delegate and often buried himself in work that could have been readily taken care of by his staff. According to Arthur Marder, Jellicoe possessed all the ‘three aces’ of an excellent admiral: a gift for leadership, a fertile imagination and a creative brain, as well as an eagerness to make full use of the ideas of his junior staff. Nevertheless, he may have been somewhat wanting in the ‘fourth ace’, an offensive spirit.84  What is more, he was a product of the traditional RN culture that downplayed subordinates’ initiatives. Unlike Fisher, he preferred to craft very detailed strategies and battle orders. The modest and sensible Jellicoe worked extremely well with the rule-flaunting and impulsive Fisher, who was normally not interested in technological details among other intricacies. For instance, as a key member of the Committee on Designs in 1904-1907, he took a leading role in the development of the new dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers. After a tiresome stint as the C-in-C of the Grand Fleet he was not entirely successful during his term as First Sea Lord. He became increasingly prone to pessimism, and could have done more, such as introducing the convoy system that eventually countered the German submarine menace in 1917.85  

All in all, Jellicoe was one of the most talented and influential officers in the Fishpond, a personality who could, when necessary, present even Fisher with cold facts and effective counterarguments. This is clearly evident from their abundant correspondence, in which both gentlemen most frankly discussed presently topical naval themes86 . Fisher appreciated this greatly. During the war, however, their relationship started to deteriorate as Fisher was prone to offer his strong (mostly unsolicited) views on a plethora of naval and other subjects to Jellicoe. For instance, when Fisher in January 1917 offered the newly-appointed First Sea Lord Jellicoe his services as Third Sea Lord and Controller, he felt wounded by the prompt negative reply from his old friend and former subordinate.87  Donald M. Schurman states about Jellicoe that “…In many ways he was remarkable and successful, and certainly he has been the most generally undervalued of the entente leaders during World War.88 

Sir Henry Jackson

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Bradwardine Jackson (1855-1929) was a member of Fisher’s seven brains and thus a key officer in the ‘original’ Fishpond. He joined the RN in 1868 and served as a young officer in the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879. A specialist in wireless communications, he became Assistant Director of Naval Ordnance in 1902, Captain of the battleship HMS Duncan in 1903, and Captain of the torpedo-school ship HMS Vernon in 1904.89  

Fisher had Jackson appointed to the post of the Third Sea Lord and Controller in 1905. Jackson was promoted to Rear Admiral in October 1906. Following a cruiser command in the Mediterranean in 1908-1911 he was promoted to Vice Admiral on his appointment as Director of the Royal Naval War College, which Fisher had established in 1907 to substitute the absent Naval War Staff (albeit a War Course College had existed since 1900).  Having been appointed Chief of the new Admiralty War Staff in 1913, Jackson became a Full Admiral in February 1914.

To the surprise of a great many observers, Jackson was appointed Fisher’s successor as the First Sea Lord after the latter’s spectacular resignation in May 1915. Although he worked well with the new First Lord, former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who had replaced Winston Churchill at approximately the same time, most historians tend to characterize the Balfour-Jackson administration at the Admiralty as lethargic and void of initiative. Most importantly, the rate at which capital ships were fitted with director firing slowed down, and the completion dates of the great number of ships that Fisher had ordered were pushed into the future.90  Jackson was replaced by Jellicoe as First Sea Lord in December 1916. He acted as the President of the Royal Naval College during the rest of the war and was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in July 1919.91 

Jackson was profoundly professional (an ‘electrician & engineer’92 ) but in terms of personality he has been characterized as colourless and lacking in imagination. As Arthur Marder points out, he was lacking in all the ‘three aces’ of an admiral: leadership capability, a fertile imagination (except perhaps in technical matters), and the ability to use the brains of juniors.93  Early on, Fisher succeeded in capitalizing on Jackson’s technical skills, especially in developing inter-ship communications for Empire-wide duty. As the second COS of the Admiralty War Staff, Jackson also played a central role in gradually building up a proper staff organization in the RN. Despite the fact that Fisher did not hold Jackson in high regard as an administrator, the relationship between the two admirals was uncomplicated until Jackson surprisingly became Fisher’s successor as First Sea Lord. Fisher vehemently criticised the Jackson-Balfour administration for a serious lack of initiative and imagination94. 

Sir Reginald Bacon

Admiral Sir Reginald Hugh Spencer Bacon (1863-1947) was an officer especially noted for his technical and literary abilities. With Prince Louis and Jellicoe, Bacon was probably among the men who were closest to Fisher in the entire Fishpond, and he wrote the biographies of both Fisher and Jellicoe after the War. Among Fisher’s original ‘seven brains’, he had a significant effect on various reforms in the RN, especially on matters to do with materiél and ordnance.

Bacon entered the RN in 1877 and specialized in torpedo craft. He met Fisher while serving as a Commander in Fisher’s Mediterranean Fleet in 1899. C-in-C Fisher was impressed by the technical abilities of the young officer. Following Bacon’s promotion to Captain in 1900, Fisher strongly influenced his appointment to the novel post of Inspecting Captain of Submarines (ICS). In that capacity he was to have a significant influence on the development of the submarine branch of the RN, in accordance with Fisher’s emerging views that the Home Isles should be defended mainly with light vessels and that fast and powerful battlecruisers should be built to patrol the Empire’s lanes of communication on the high seas.95  Bacon was appointed the first captain of Fisher’s revolutionary all-big-gun battleship HMS Dreadnought in June 1906, and in 1907 he was appointed to the central position of the Director of Naval Ordnance to succeed Jellicoe. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1909. However, following the fall of Fisher in late 1909 he decided to retire, and took up the well-paid position of managing director at the private Coventry Ordnance Works. On the outbreak of the war he returned to active service and in 1915 was appointed to the command of the Dover Patrol.  He was promoted to Vice Admiral in July 1915. After a controversy over his management of the Dover Barrage against German submarines, the newly appointed First Sea Lord Rosslyn Wemyss had him ousted, and Roger Keyes replaced him in January 1918.96  Again, a Fishpond member was dismissed by the anti-Fisher Wemyss. Bacon was promoted to Full Admiral in September 1918.97 

As a personality, Bacon has been described as brilliant but arrogant, slow to acknowledge his mistakes, and an authoritarian leader who did not get along well with his men. What is more, unlike his patron Fisher who was keen on delegating authority where he saw talent, he was more of a centralizer, and later in his career he developed an excessively risk-avoiding attitude.98   

In his often-avant-garde views of how naval warfare should develop in the future given the rapid development in the use of torpedoes, mines and the submarine, especially against large capital ships, Bacon offered considerable professional support to Fisher, who was not an expert in technological details. He remained personally loyal to the old admiral throughout his career, which is evidenced in the polite tone of the 1929 Fisher biography he authored.99  However, outside the realm of technology and ordnance, he had a limited effect on the reorganization of the RN in general. This may have been due to the limitations of his personality and leadership skills, especially his inability to mobilize and motivate his followers. 

Sir Percy Scott

Admiral Sir Percy Moreton Scott, 1st Baronet (1853- 1924) was an inventor and a pioneer in naval gunnery, best known for his director firing system. He joined the RN in 1866 and, like Fisher, was present at the 1882 British naval bombardment of Egyptian forts at Alexandria. He witnessed the inaccuracy of the British gunners and started devising his own plans to improve gunnery practices in the RN. He started this work at HMS Excellent, the gunnery school, captained by Fisher. Fisher always believed strongly in Scott’s innovative capabilities.100  Promoted to Captain in 1893, Scott served on the Navy’s Ordnance Committee until 1896 when he was given his first sea command, HMS Scylla, a cruiser in the Mediterranean Fleet. He was now free to implement his ideas on improved gunnery, scoring an unprecedented success during the 1897 gunnery trials. He took part in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the then Second Sea Lord Fisher had him appointed Captain of HMS Excellent in 1903. Scott developed his gunnery theories further, reaching the flag rank in 1905.101  Fisher tailored him the position of Inspector of Target Practice, which he held in 1905-1907. 

 In 1907 Scott took command of the 1st Cruiser squadron of the Channel Fleet under the command of Lord Charles Beresford. Not an easy subordinate, he famously quarrelled with Beresford on two occasions. No doubt these incidents were also linked to the ongoing Fisher-Beresford feud, and the latter wanted to discipline Scott, a prominent Fishpond member. Fisher came to his rescue, and Scott was never court-martialled.102  After a sea command and promotion to Vice Admiral in 1908, Scott returned in 1909 to develop his promising director firing system. He notes in his autobiography that there was significant Admiralty opposition to his new system, which promised remarkably improved target-practice results.103  Resistance to change and new technology are probably the main reasons why a large number of RN officers resisted Scott’s innovations (as they also did in the case of Pollen’s superior fire-control equipment). Scott attributed the resistance to ‘professional jealousy’. He was promoted to Full Admiral and created a baronet upon his retirement in 1913.104 

Only eight dreadnoughts had been fitted with Scott’s director firing system at the outbreak of war.105  Meanwhile, Scott returned from retirement to work on improving fire control and countering the German submarine menace. Like Fisher, he was convinced that the era of the battleship would soon be over due to the increasing threat from ever-more advanced submarines, mines and aerial attacks.106    

As a person, Scott was extremely outspoken and often hard to work with. According to Peter Padfield: “But if Scott acted like a bone stuck halfway down the throat of anyone senior to him, he was very much on the side of the subordinates who measured up to his standards – and they for him.”107   Fisher and his key disciples Prince Louis and Jellicoe appreciated Scott’s talents very much, and realized the importance of his director firing system for the gunnery of the RN. However, Fisher fully realized that Scott was not the easiest person to work with and a lot of problems originated from the gunnery expert’s ways of dealing with superiors.108  In the end, the road to improved fire control generally proved long and winding. Peter Padfield goes as far as stating: “… the three great men of this pre-war navy, Fisher, Scott, Jellicoe, who lifted the Service bodily between them to unequalled heights of material and technical efficiency and training. Others helped, many vitally, but these were the three men.”109 


Sir Charles Madden

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Edward Madden, 1st Baronet (1862-1935) was also a member of Fisher’s original seven brains. His marriage to the sister of Jellicoe’s wife further strengthened his connections to the inner circle of the Fishpond. Having joined the RN in 1875, he was involved in the Anglo-Egyptian war in 1882. A torpedo officer by training, he was promoted to Captain in 1901 and posted to the Mediterranean Fleet, where he became acquainted with Fisher. He joined Fisher’s Committee on Designs in 1904 and was appointed Naval Assistant to Third Sea Lord Henry Jackson in February 1905. Madden went back to sea in 1907 as the Captain of HMS Dreadnought and Chief of Staff to Sir Francis Bridgeman, C-in-C of the Home Fleet. In December 1908, he was appointed Private Naval Secretary to Reginald McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty and Fisher’s closest ally. Upon Fisher’s resignation in January 1910 he was given the post of Fourth Sea Lord, responsible for RN supplies. Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1911, he was given Home Fleet and cruiser-squadron commands until war broke out. When Jellicoe was appointed C-in-C of the Grand Fleet he asked that his brother-in-law be appointed as his Chief of Staff. He was posted to the Grand Fleet in August 1914 and promoted to acting Vice Admiral in 1915. For his services at the Battle of Jutland he was promoted to Vice Admiral in June 1916 and was further promoted to Second-in-Command of the entire Grand Fleet in December 1916. He became a Full Admiral in February 1919, and Admiral of the Fleet in 1924.110     

Madden was a gentlemanly leader, and an esteemed professional who worked well with Fisher and the key members of the inner circle of the Fishpond. Arthur Marder describes him as “…a simple, reserved, very sound and knowledgeable officer, pre-eminent as a tactician, and somewhat lacking only in imagination”.111  As a slightly younger member, he was initially overshadowed by his brother-in-law Jellicoe, as well as the by Admirals Prince Louis and Henry Jackson. Unlike Bacon, however, and with his excellent social and leadership skills, Madden later advanced to key positions in the upper echelons of the RN (he was First Sea Lord in 1927-1930, for instance). Madden’s correspondence with Fisher is rather formal, strict to the point and extremely polite in tone, suggesting less personal familiarity112 . 

Sir Henry Oliver

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Francis Oliver (1865-1965) was a Royal Navy officer and a Chief of Staff during the Great War. He joined the navy in 1877 and was originally trained as a navigating officer. He became the first captain of the new navigation school HMS Mercury in 1903 and was appointed Naval Assistant to First Sea Lord Fisher in 1908. He also served Fisher’s successors in that capacity until 1912. Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1913, he became Director of the Intelligence Division at the Admiralty. After the outbreak of the war he was appointed Naval Secretary to First Lord Churchill, and Chief of the Admiralty War Staff in November 1914. When Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord and also assumed the position of COS in December 1916, Oliver became Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Oliver’s his role in directing the Battle of Jutland from the Admiralty has been debated. He served as Commander of the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron in the Grand Fleet during the last year of the war. Promoted to Vice Admiral in 1919, he became Commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and, finally, Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Fleet. Consequently, he became Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel. He was promoted to Full Admiral in 1923, and to Admiral of the Fleet in 1928. He retired in 1933.113  

Among Fisher’s key assistants (other former assistants to Fisher who did not rise to the highest naval rank were Captain Thomas Crease and Admiral Charles de Bartolomé), Oliver was ‘a hard worker and full of common sense’.114  As COS and DCNS he was a ruthless centralizer, unable to delegate and prone to micromanagement. In this, he greatly resembled Jellicoe.115  With his deep knowledge following his long tenure directing the staff, Oliver tended not to trust his subordinates’ opinions. All in all, William James refers to Oliver as probably one of the greatest architects of the new navy, even surpassing Fisher.116  As COS and DCNS he built up the organization and working practices of the expanding naval staff during the War. However, C.I. Hamilton argues that both Oliver and Jellicoe had a severely distorted view of staff duties, regarding them mainly as clerical and administrative in nature.117  This is exactly why Fisher was so opposed to the building of a large bureaucratic staff in the first place: what he wanted was a loosely coupled body that would be able to focus more strongly on the creation of a strategic vision and its efficient implementation. A new and more decentralized organizational and staff structure was implemented once both Jellicoe and Oliver had left the Admiralty.118   


As is obvious from the above description of the careers and roles of the most important high-ranking officers in the Fishpond, it consisted of a loose network of diverse personalities with different talents. The mere existence of a unified Fishpond systematically machinated by Fisher can be strongly questioned in the light of historical evidence. For the most part, the Fishpond was a derisive concept used by Fisher’s opponents in the public campaign against his person and his organizational designs. However, it is true that Fisher intentionally surrounded himself with a cabal of suitable men he thought could be useful to him in realizing his ambitious plans. Fisher clearly believed that these key individuals, with the support of the informal advisory service provided by the War College at Greenwich, would suffice to run the navy without a formal staff. Most of the prominent Fishpond members, especially Prince Louis, were nevertheless opposed to this view and strongly advocated the creation of a staff organization, which happened in 1912.119  Gradually, the more and more professional staff organization took over and formalized many strategic functions that the informal network of Fisherites had performed earlier. 

As far as the careers and roles of the members of the Fishpond were concerned, Fisher obviously secured central positions and promotions for the men he trusted the most. However, he did not have a grand master plan in terms of who was needed, where and why: He was merely using his instincts and gut feelings in deciding whom to appoint to what position and whom to sack. When he was in power, he usually got his way. Even when out of power, he bombarded his associates (especially Churchill and Jellicoe) with copious plans how to fill the most important top positions of the RN on land and at sea. He was also ingenious in using committees and informal teams of experts to develop individual parts of his reform scheme. In this respect, especially as a military leader, he was ahead of his time as a delegator and de-centralizer. The above analysis of the role of the key members of the Fishpond gives strong evidence of their major and often decisive contributions to Fisher’s and his successor First Sea Lords’ reforms in the RN organization. They also adapted and further developed – and sometimes abandoned – many parts of the original reform scheme, especially during the War. In many ways, the key officers originally hand-picked by Fisher evolved over and above (and sometimes below) the roles that their patron had envisaged for them.

It is no surprise that as Radical Jack aged, reluctantly gravitated away from the centre of power in the RN and saw many of his original plans come to nothing, he uttered many bitter words about his former disciples, especially Jellicoe. After his resignation in 1915, he often wrote about his desire to return to the Admiralty, even to positions more minor than the one of the First Sea Lord. Many Fisherites also noted a gradual decline in his mental and physical capabilities. Admiral Bacon wrote in his autobiography, for instance, that the great tragedy of Fisher’s life was that he did not die in December 1914 after Coronel had been avenged at the Falklands. Had he done so he would have retained a reputation second only to that of Nelson.120 

Fisher could be very burdensome to people at the higher echelons of the RN, especially during the last years of the War. As the chairman of the Board of Invention and Research, he used certain organs of the Press to comment vehemently on the alleged incompetence in conducting the naval war, trying to further his aim of being recalled to the Admiralty. Jackson (then First Sea Lord), for instance, had told Hamilton (Second Sea Lord) in March 1916 that he could only attend to the war in the intervals between answering Fisher’s questions. As his former favourite, Jellicoe received most of the literary bombardment from the old admiral.121   

Three general conclusions about leadership in general can be drawn from this study of the Fishpond, which reflect issues that have changed little since the days of the Royal Navy of the Fisher era. First, top leaders are essentially team builders, able to find, motivate, develop and keep talent that they think best suits their organization. Fisher was at his best building a loyal coterie of bright and talented followers, especially at the height of the reforms during his first stint as First Sea Lord. Visionary leaders, a rare species especially in the setting of a military organization, inspire talent to flock to their cause. No other First Sea Lord (except perhaps for Beatty later on) was as capable of enthusing followership as Fisher was. It is also interesting that Fisher’s most loyal and effective followers were approximately 10-20 years younger than he was (junior officers had always been fond of Fisher’s unconventional approach, and he liked to directly hear their opinions about necessary improvements in a great number of matters). Followership thus seems to have something to do with age difference. Followers may need to be younger than the patron to remain respectful, but if they are considerably younger, the mind-sets, world views and ways of working are not necessarily compatible any longer. The patron simply becomes too old to imbue followership. 

Second, leading is about the coupling of the formal and the informal organization, often bypassing the bureaucracy created by the former. Even in a military organization, no leader can have ‘absolute rule’, and even the most autocratic leaders need an informal network of people in key positions to back them up. Fisher’s favouritism was obviously an attempt to establish such a network when the extant regulative institutions of the RN proved inept at providing the First Sea Lord with officers of sufficiently high intellectual calibre. Fisher’s leadership was essentially about using the informal organization to achieve his desired organizational goals. Third, effective leadership styles vary across individuals, organizations and along leader careers. Even the mightiest leaders may occasionally be inconsistent and may panic or become pessimistic under pressure. They should be at the right stage of their career path to effectively function in a certain leadership position. The longer the tenure in one leadership position, the more likely are the outcomes to deteriorate at some point. These aspects are easily observable in Fisher’s own leadership as he aged. His first stint as First Sea Lord was considerably more successful than his second one during the War. Similar developments can be detected in the careers of his Fishpond members, too. At least Prince Louis, Jellicoe and Bacon served in positions to which they were no longer necessarily the best options. Prince Louis’ tenure as First Sea Lord lasted perhaps too long, Jellicoe should never have accepted that position at the first place and Dover Patrol proved to be too demanding a command for the increasingly cautious Bacon. Thus, the effectiveness of a leader in a certain position tends to follow an inverted U-shaped curve. What is more, different leader characteristics and leadership styles tend to complement each other in organizational change. The careers of all admirals described above are a good illustration of this. Fisher’s visionary broad brush often needed Jellicoe’s calm rationality and Scott’s deep expertise. 

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 


  1. In his seminal work, Marder termed the entire period of 1904-1919 ‘the Fisher Era’, see e.g. Arthur J. Marder, The Road to War, 1904-1914. From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: Royal Navy in the Fisher Era 1904-1919, Vol 1. (Oxford, 1961). Sumida goes even further and states that the period that began in 1889 with the ‘two-power standard’ and ended in 1918 could, with ample justification, be called the age of Fisher. Jon Sumida, ‘British Naval Administration and Policy in the Age of Fisher’, The Journal of Military History, 54, No.1 (1990), 1-26.
  2. In terms of naval tonnage, in 1914 when WWI broke out, the RN comprised 2,205 thousand tonnes of commissioned ships, and the Imperial German Navy 1,019 thousand tonnes, Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York, 1999), 85; see also David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe 1904-1914 (Oxford, 1996), 8. The annual construction figures clearly show how Germany gradually lost the naval arms race before the outbreak of the Great War.
  3. Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, 1999); Jon Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy, 1889- 1914 (Boston, 1989).
  4. See e.g., Christopher M. Bell, ‘Contested Waters: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era’, War in History, 23, No.1 (2016), 115-26; Christopher M. Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Reconsidered. Winston Churchill at the Admiralty, 1911-1914, War in History, 18, No. 3 (2011), 333-56.
  5. Sumida, British Naval Administration and Policy, 3.
  6. Jon Sumida, ‘British Capital Ship Design and Fire Control in the Dreadnought Era: Sir John Fisher, Arthur Hungerford Pollen, and the Battle Cruiser’, The Journal of Modern History, 51, No. 2 (1979), 205-30.
  7. Richard Freeman, The Great Edwardian Naval Feud: Beresford’s Vendetta Against ‘Jackie’ Fisher (London, 2009); Geoffrey Penn, Infighting Admirals. Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries (Barnsley, 2000).
  8. Keith McLay, ‘Swimming in the ‘Fishpond’ or Solidarity with the ‘Beresfordian Syndicate’: An Analysis of the Inquiry by the Subcommittee of Imperial Defence into Naval Policy, 1909’, International Journal of Naval History, 12, No. 1 (2015).
  9. For instance, Stewart Ross, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman (Cambridge, 1998), 76, 121; Jan Morris, Fisher’s Face: or, Getting to Know the Admiral (London, 1995), 15; Richard Hough, Louis & Victoria. The Family History of the Mountbattens (London, 1984), 193.
  10. Nor was the division between the materialists (e.g. Fisher, Jellicoe) and the historicists (e.g. Custance, Richmond).
  11. Barry D. Hunt, Sailor-Scholar. Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, 1871-1946 (Waterloo, 1982), 3.
  12. Most essentially, including the Fisher papers in the Churchill Archives at the University of Cambridge (FISR 1-16).
  13. For the professional papers, see Paul K. Kemp, editor, The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher. Volumes I and II (London, 1964); for the personal papers, see Arthur J. Marder, editor, Fear God and Dread Nought. The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, Volume I, The Making of an Admiral, 1854-1904 (London, 1952); Arthur J.  Marder, editor, Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone. Volume II: Years of Power, 1904-1914 (London, 1956); Arthur J.  Marder, editor, Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone. Volume III: Restoration, Abdication, and Last Years, 1914-1920 (London, 1959).
  14. Alfred Temple Patterson, editor, The Jellicoe Papers. Volumes 1 and 2. Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa (London, 1968).
  15. Brian M. Ranft, editor, The Beatty Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. Volume I. 1902-1918 (Aldershot, 1989), Brian M. Ranft, editor, The Beatty Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: Volume II: 1916-1927 (Aldershot, 1993).
  16. Stephen W. Roskill, editor, Hankey: Man Of Secrets. Volume I (1877–1918) (London, 1970).
  17. Especially Hankey’s letters to Fisher, HNKY 5/2.
  18. Mountbatten Papers: Personal and naval papers of Prince Louis of Battenberg, first Marquis of Milford Haven (MB1/T), University of Southampton, Britain.
  19. CHAR 13/1-72.
  20. John A. Fisher, Memories and Records by the Admiral of the Fleet Fisher. Volume One: Memoirs (London, 1919); Volume Two: Records (New York, 1920); Reginald H. Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone: Admiral of the Fleet. Volumes One and Two (Garden City, 1929); Richard Hough, First Sea Lord. An Authorised Biography of Admiral Lord Fisher (London, 1969); Ruddock F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford, 1973); Morris, Fisher’s Face.
  21. Admiral Viscount Jellicoe, The Grand Fleet 1914-1916: Its Creation, Development and Work (New York, 1919); Admiral Sir R. H. S. Bacon, The Life of John Rushworth Earl Jellicoe (London, 1936); Alfred Temple Patterson, Jellicoe. A Biography (London, 1969); Donald M. Schurman, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1916-1917), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, 101-112, ed. by Malcolm  Murfett (London, 1995).
  22. Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. The Last Naval Hero: An Intimate Biography (London, 1980); Brian M. Ranft, Admiral David Earl Beatty (1919-1927), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, ed. by Malcolm  Murfett, 127-140 (London, 1995); Charles Beatty, Our Admiral: Biography of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, 1871-1936 (London, 1980).
  23. Richard Freeman, Admiral Insubordinate: The Life and Times of Lord Beresford (London, 2015); Charles Beresford, The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford (London, 1914).
  24. Edward Eden Bradford, Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (London, 1923); Nicholas A. Lambert, Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvett-Wilson, V.C. (1910-1911), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, 34-53, ed. by Malcolm Murfett (London, 1995).
  25. Ross, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman; Nicholas A. Lambert, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman-Bridgeman (1911-1912), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, 55-74, ed. by Malcolm Murfett (London, 1995).
  26. Mark Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg: Admiral of the Fleet (London, 1934); Hough, Louis & Victoria; John B. Hattendorf, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg (1912-1914), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, 75-90, ed. by Malcolm Murfett (London, 1995).
  27. Malcolm Murfett, Admiral Sir Henry Bradwardine Jackson (1915-1916), in The First Sea Lords. From Fisher to Mountbatten, 91-100, ed. by Malcolm Murfett (London, 1995).
  28. Admiral Sir William James, A Great Seaman: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver, G.C.B, K.C.M.G., M.V.O., L.L.D. (London, 1956).
  29. Peter Padfield, Aim Straight. A Biography of Admiral Sir Percy Scott (London, 1966); Percy Scott, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy (London, 1919).
  30. Hunt, Sailor-Scholar.
  31. Reginald Bacon, From 1900 Onward (London, 1940).
  32. Tony Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet 1734-1995 (London, 2002), 126.
  33. C.I. Hamilton, The Making of the Modern Admiralty. British Naval Policy-Making, 1805-1927 (Cambridge, 2011).
  34. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game. Jutland and British Naval Command (London, 1996).
  35. Nicholas Black, The British Naval Staff in the First World War (London, 2009).
  36. Shawn T. Grimes, Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918 (London 2012).
  37. Matthew S. Seligmann, The Royal Navy and the German Threat 1901-1914. Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War Against Germany (Oxford, 2015).
  38. W. Richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations. Ideas, Interests and Identities (London, 2014), 55-8.
  39. See John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan, ‘Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony’, American Journal of Sociology, (1977) 83, No. 2, 340-63; Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, American Sociological Review, (1983), 48, No. 2, 147-60.
  40. Reginald H. S. Bacon (editor), Britain’s Glorious Navy (London, 1943), 49-54.
  41. Grimes, Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 7-40.
  42. Bacon, ed., Britain’s Glorious Navy, 50.
  43. Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt, A Shipbuilder’s Yarn: The Record of a Naval Constructor (London, 1948).
  44. Fisher, Memories, 257-58.
  45. Bacon, From 1900 Onward, 161.
  46. Patterson, Jellicoe, 37-8; for a more detailed analysis, see Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, 1-28; Kemp (Editor), The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher. Volume I, 9-11.
  47. Robert L. Davison, The Challenges of Command. The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919 (Farnham, 2011).
  48. Davison, The Challenges of Command, 1-24, 247-55.
  49. Gordon, The Rules of the Game, 315-39.
  50. Davison, The Challenges of Command, 10, 15-6.
  51. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, ‘Patronage and Competence’ in Martine Acerra, Jose Merino and Jean Meyer, eds, Les Marines De Guerres Européenes XVII-XIIIe Siecles (Paris, 1985), 237-48; Christopher Dandeker, ‘Patronage and Bureaucratic Control: The Case of the Naval Officer in English Society, 1780-1850’, British Journal of Sociology, 29, No. 3 (1978), 300-20; Edward Hughes, ‘Civil Service Reform, 1853-5’, Public Administration, 32, No. 1 (1954), 17-51.
  52. Adam Bellow, In Praise of Nepotism. A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush (New York, 2003); Canice Prendergast and Robert H. Topel, ‘Favoritism in Organizations’, The Journal of Political Economy, 104, No. 5 (1996), 958-78.
  53. On the philosophical level, John Cottingham makes the case that favoritism in human behaviour is, in fact, inevitable and even desirable. Impartiality in different decision situations is deemed practically impossible, or even immoral – and against human nature, John Cottingham, ‘Partiality, Favouritism and Morality’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 36, No. 144 (1986), 357.
  54. John Gooch, The Plans of War. The General Staff and British Military Strategy c. 1900-1916 (London, 1974).
  55. The was much discussion about the merits of the German-style general staff organization in Britain during the decade before the First World War. For instance, Spenser Wilkinson published his book The Brain of an Army. A Popular Account of the German General Staff (London, 1913).
  56. Black, The British Naval Staff in the First World War, 54-5.
  57. Marder lists Scott, Jellicoe, Bacon, Madden, Oliver, Richmond and Jackson as Fisher’s key assistants or ‘Fisher’s jackals’, as the opponents characterized them. See Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. The Road to War 1904-1914, Vol. I (Oxford, 1961), 84.
  58. Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg, 166.
  59. Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg, xiv; 138.
  60. In a letter to Arnold White in August 1902, Fisher described Prince Louis as “…my best Captain in the Mediterranean Fleet”, and in a letter to Arthur J. Balfour in January 1904, Fisher dubbed Mountbatten “…out and away the best man inside Admiralty building”, Marder (ed.), Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. I, 262, 293, see also 326.
  61. Hough, Louis & Victoria, 194-8.
  62. Oliver Johnson, ‘Class Warfare and the Selborne Scheme: The Royal Navy’s Battle over Technology and Social Hierarchy’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 100, No. 4 (2014), 422-33.
  63. Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg, 214-21.
  64. Despite being a close associate of Fisher’s, Bridgeman was not a member of the Fishpond.
  65. Hough, Louis and Victoria, 244-256; Kerr, Prince Louis of Battenberg, 238.
  66. Christopher M. Bell, ‘The Myth of a Naval Revolution by Proxy: Lord Fisher’s Influence on Winston Churchill’s Naval Policy, 1911-1914’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 38, No.7 (2015), 1024-44.
  67. Hattendorf, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, 79-80.
  68. MB1/T26 Naval papers (231-40), 1913: 235.
  69. Andrew Lambert, Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great (London, 2009), 317.
  70. Hough, Victoria & Louis, 307.
  71. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. II, 101-117. However, Prince Louis had originally suggested sending battlecruisers to catch von Spee. This is what Fisher did immediately after taking over at the Admiralty after Battenberg’s resignation. Hough, Victoria & Louis, 312.
  72. Hough, Victoria & Louis, 300-49.
  73. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, 406-97. See also Marder (ed.) Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, 398.
  74. Richard Hough, The First Sea Lord. An Authorized Biography of Admiral Lord Fisher (London, 1969), 322-3.
  75. Hough, The First Sea Lord, 212.
  76. A good example is Mountbatten’s letter to Fisher on the 3rd of August 1909, in which the former proposes, among other issues, the abolishment of the title of the C-in-C of the Atlantic Fleet and suggests Fisher to merely appoint a Vice Admiral Commanding Atlantic Division of the Home Fleet, FISR 1/8, 404/64, see also e.g. FISR 1/9, 443/23, FISR 1/6, 336/20.
  77. Bacon, The Life of John Rushworth, Earl Jellicoe, 109.
  78. Fisher’s own words  in a letter to Earl of Selborne were: “These are the seven brains: Jackson, F.R.S., Jellicoe, C.B., Bacon, D.S.O., Madden, M.V.O., Wilfred Henderson (who has all the signs of the Zodiac after his name!), associated with Gard, M.V.O., Chief Constructor of Portsmouth Dockyard, and who splendidly kept the Mediterranean Fleet efficient for three years, and Gracie, the best Marine Engineer in the world!”, Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. I, 331.
  79. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 130.
  80. Bacon, The Life of John Rushworth, Earl Jellicoe, 124-224.
  81. Patterson, Jellicoe, 118-24.
  82. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 131.
  83. Bacon, The Life of John Rushworth, Earl Jellicoe, 374-484.
  84. Marder, Arthur J. From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: Royal Navy in the Fisher Era 1904-1919. The War Years: To the Eve of Jutland 1914-1916. Vol. II (Oxford, 1963), 8-11.
  85. Patterson, Jellicoe, 154-209.
  86. See e.g. FISR 1/21, 1135/22; FISR 1/22, 1226/115.
  87. Hough, First Sea Lord, 353-4; also Davison, The Challenges of Command, 239-40.
  88. Schurman, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, 110.
  89. Tony Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet 1734-1995 (London, 2002), 126.
  90. Hamilton, The Making of the Modern Admiralty, 237-241; Black, The British Naval Staff in the First World War, 131-69.
  91. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 127.
  92. As Herbert Richmond characterized him, see Hamilton, The Making of Modern Admiralty, 239.
  93. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. II, 298-299.
  94. See e.g. Fisher’s lengthy letter to Prime Minister Asquith in March 1916, Marder (ed.) Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. III, 324-331.
  95. Nicholas A. Lambert, ‘Admiral Sir John Fisher and the Concept of Flotilla Defence, 1904-1909’, Journal of Military History, 59, No. 4 (1995), 639-49. However, some evolutionary historians have contested the view that such a strategy ever existed at the Admiralty except perhaps in Fisher’s vivid imagination, see Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Reconsidered’, 333-56.
  96. Arthur J. Marder, 1917: Year of Crisis. From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: Royal Navy in the Fisher Era 1904-1919, Vol 4. (Oxford, 1969), 347.
  98. Michael Dash, British Submarine Policy 1853-1918 (London, 1990), 158.
  99. Bacon also refers to Fisher in an extremely positive fashion in his autobiography, despite acknowledging some faults in the old admiral’s character. He writes that with his foresight and administrative ability, Fisher efficiently ‘saved the nation with his brain’. Bacon, From 1900 Onward, 323.
  100. Padfield, Aim Straight, 51-71.
  101. Padfield, Aim Straight, 134-43.
  102. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, 97-100.
  103. Scott, Fifty Years, 248.
  104. Padfield, Aim Straight, 220.
  105. Scott, Fifty Years, 253-62.
  106. Padfield, Aim Straight, 201, 223-6.
  107. Padfield, Aim Straight, 125.
  108. For instance, in a letter to First Lord McKenna, Fisher laments about Scott that “…it’s a pity he’s such a cad – that he has done wonders for the Navy can’t be gain-sayed -”, MCKN 3/4.
  109. Padfield, Aim Straight, 142-3.
  110. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 164.
  111. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. II, 12.
  112. For instance, FISR 1/10, 511/25.
  113. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 202-3.
  114. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, 408.
  115. Hamilton, The Making of the Modern Admiralty, 255-6.
  116. William M. James, A Great Seaman: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver, G.C.B, K.C.M.G., M.V.O., L.L.D., (London, 1956), 186.
  117. Hamilton, The Making of the Modern Admiralty, 256.
  118. Hamilton, The Making of the Modern Admiralty, 261.
  119. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, 256-7.
  120. Bacon, From 1900 Onward, 329.
  121. Roskill, Earl Beatty, 140-1.

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A Question of Faith, A Matter of Tactics: The Royal Navy and the Washington Naval Agreement

Joseph Moretz
Independent Historian

At the conclusion of the Washington Conference in February 1922, statesmen had good reason to feel satisfied at their handiwork.1 A naval arms race amongst recently cooperative belligerents had seemingly been forestalled with the prospect of spending countless millions arrested. This was not peace in our time, but it was a time when sustaining the peace that took forever to come in 1918 still mattered. Legal limitations in capital ship numbers, tonnage and fighting dimensions amongst the five principal naval powers stood without precedent. If failing to remove all barriers to peaceful relations, the Washington Naval Agreement at least possessed the virtue of tackling one obstacle widely perceived to have been a cause of the World War.2

Avowedly, the conference had aimed to achieve far more, but addressing limitations in air and land armaments would have required the presence of others.3 30/5, Balfour telegram No. 59 of 24 November 1921.] Even in the naval sphere the cup remained only half full. Abolition of the submarine or severely restricting its displacement to preclude offensive use—British desires in the wake of the havoc exacted in the recent war—faltered and so too extending the ratio system now agreed for capital ships to cruisers.4 O[ffice] 800/209/14-24, Balfour ‘Opening Remarks,’ 15 November 1921.] The last proved more to British liking as the Royal Navy posited a requirement in cruisers beyond the limits offered by the United States.5  

Having conceded naval supremacy without a shot fired in anger, British officers in a dry Washington perhaps might not cheer the results quite so fulsomely, but they too had reason to be thankful, if only because a greater peril had been avoided. To wit, an initial proposal to limit total British and American carrier tonnages to 80,000 tons—roughly equaling present Royal Navy strength—had been modified to a limit of 125,000 tons, thus allowing ample room for future growth.6 Better yet, all existing carriers had been deemed experimentaland could be replaced by newer types. As only the Royal Navy so far possessed aircraft carriers and the knowledge gained from operating them, future construction would likely confirm the existing advantage.7iralty 1/8735/72, Naval Staff memorandum, 21 November 1921.] Additionally, the trap of opening research establishments, manufacturing plant and naval magazines to outside inspection had been side-stepped. This was no small achievement given Britains advantage in Anti-Submarine Warfare painfully acquired and the steps already taken to improve the navys ordnance based on war experience.    

Much has been written of the Washington Naval Agreement and here one may cite the view of the late Stephen Roskill (made with the full benefit of hindsight) as approaching received wisdom when he avowed: 

that of all the ideas hopelessly devised by man to reduce the likelihood of war, and of all measures of alleged economy forced by politicians on the fighting services, the naval limitation treaties will stand for all time not only as the most ineffective, but also the most dangerous to those nations which loyally tried to abide by their restrictive terms.8

That is to claim much—perhaps too much—for it overlooks how the several navies responded to the new strategic setting. Most especially is the case regarding fleet tactics and this essay will address the Royal Navys response to the Washington Naval Agreement. 

Too be sure, affairs in Washington only confirmed the strategic necessity of a Singapore Naval Base.9 But, a whole lot less has been recorded of the navys efforts to address the tactical implications of Washington.10 Thus, with overall parity conceded to the United States and superiority in local waters granted to Japan, the Admiralty sought to redress matters by ensuring tactical proficiency in battle. In truth, the test of the World War had made such a reorientation necessary, never mind the results secured at Washington. Still, the Washington accords only emphasized this trend as recourse to outbuilding an adversary in the near term was forsaken. It was also a step that could proceed minus the intrusion of the cabinet and the Treasury. Indeed, given the woeful performance of the navy during the war, political support for correcting deficiencies in training and doctrine would find ready acceptance. 

Foremost, executive officer education remained one area ripe for tackling the fallout of the Washington Naval Treaty with both the Royal Naval War College and the Royal Naval Staff College noting the new realities arising from the Washington Naval Agreement as part of their tuition. As the surviving record is so patchy, drawing definitive conclusions is problematic, especially as the arms control regime was covered more generally in the series of six lectures offered to officers in International Law. In 1926-1927 only a single lecture of the more than ninety provided to officers that year explicitly covered tactics.11 Before that and in 1922, the Washington Naval Agreement had featured as Commander Frederic Bennetts subject in the extended essay each officer under instruction was required to write as part of the coursework. Following his successful completion of the Staff Course, Bennett remained at Greenwich as a lecturer where he focused on German naval operations during the late war. Thus, not even Bennett evidenced much interest in a matter fundamentally altering British naval circumstances.12 

That the Staff College largely ignored the Washington Naval Conference is unsurprising for preparing for the future always retained more resonance for that body than second-guessing the past. The same could be said of the Royal Naval War College where flag officers, captains and commanders learnt the higher aspects of naval warfare. Under Rear Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, the War College offered a balanced curriculum covering policy, strategy, operations and tactics. Doubtless, this reflected the pedagogical inclinations of that officer where overarching principles and the object of any enterprise remained as constants.13 Washington, however, challenged a key tenet of British naval orthodoxy which readily assumed any war would be fought from a position of maritime superiority. Operationally, this superiority might not always exist in all theaters, but strategically, and over the course of any war, it would tell in the end. 

From that superiority had stemmed Britains ability to execute amphibious operations by employing second-line units. This had been a feature throughout Britains naval past and the admiral now feared the conduct of future combined operations had been gravely compromised. One palliative would have been to ship the supporting troops in transports rather than in older battleships or cruisers, but Richmond viewed that course with disfavor as the transports would not be able to provide the required gunfire support to any assault. Even if that worry had not existed, the problem of how to land tanks remained. Richmond saw ships such as the obsolete HMS Dreadnought as offering an ideal solution. Cut down as razees, the ships could accommodate tanks embarked on the open upper deck and hoisted over the side by the ships 20-ton derrick.14

Clearly, a mind closely attuned to the Royal Navys past saw possibilities for solving current tactical dilemmas but first the ships had to be available. This included the ability of conducting future blocking operations such as Zeebrugge to neutralize the still very real threat posed by the submarine to surface forces. To Richmond, the greatest problem with the Washington Agreement was that it viewed naval war as a discrete act when in fact it was nations that went to war and not simply navies. This put at risk the very idea of the British way in warfare where projecting the army upon a distant shore had allowed her to damage an enemy in a manner without fear of return.15

Even before Washington, Richmond had cautioned officers to refrain from assuming any fleet encounter would proceed from a position of strength. Such woolly thinking in the present fiscal environment was lethal as a

fighting officer must never permit tactical training to start from the assumption that we shall fight with superior force. The results of doing so are far reaching: action is cramped, risks are avoided, opportunities missed, and officers imagine they can shelter themselves behind the excuse that their numbers were not adequate….16

Sir Herbert Richmond, 1921 (National Portrait Gallery, UK – NPG x65624)

In short, owing to the parity conceded to the United States and the burden of distance prevailing in the case of Japan, British assumptions of strategic superiority were no longer tenable. Another quick to appreciate the changed environment was Lieutenant Commander Russell Grenfell. A recently qualified staff officer, Grenfell argued the existing means of tactical instruction were weighted towards mastering the employment of specific weapons rather than securing an appreciation of how best to employ all the means available in battle. The reasons for this gap in understanding were not hard to fathom as the navy spent but little time in mastering tactical theory in either the War College or the Staff College. Thus, in late 1923 Grenfell posited the need for a school dedicated to the study of tactics.17 Russell Grenfell, ‘Training in Tactics,’ Naval Review, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1923): 681-6.] 

That Grenfells plea fell on deaf ears must not be attributed to the unsoundness of his proposal, for others too believed strategic parity would beget tactical stalemate in battle.18 A recently promoted lieutenant commander and serving in the battleship HMS Iron Duke on the Mediterranean Station, Grenfell may have not been a prophet in the wilderness, but he stood removed from the mainspring of naval policy—the Naval Staff.19 

Capt. Russell Grenfell RN (Courtesy of Grenfell Family History)

One more attuned to the corridors of Whitehall was Rear Admiral Frederic Dreyer. Viewed as the services leading gunnery expert and erstwhile Flag Captain to Admiral Jellicoe in the Iron Duke at the Battle of Jutland, Dreyer successfully bridged the chasm in personalities that engulfed the service in the wake of that action.20 Viewed as pompous, Dryer was not everybodys cup of tea being [u]niversally distrusted & disliked in the service.21 The verdict remained Grenfells and allowing that that officer might have retained a special pique, even he recognized Dreyers unbounded talent. So too did Beatty who saw Dreyer as an officer of no mean achievement. Shortly, the First Sea Lord would be able to assess such talents more closely as Dreyer joined the Admiralty as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (ACNS) in September 1924. 

In March 1924, however, Dreyer sat in on the Senior OfficersWar Course where he was bold to criticize the paucity of tactical instruction within the navy. As the eighteen-week course that year included at least five lectures on naval tactics,22 it may be that Dreyers charge was aimed at the broader service rather than the War Course itself. Be that as it may, Dreyers palliative of establishing a dedicated tactical school as a necessary corrective proved too much for his peers.23 In a class that included three flag officers,24 the font of their objections may have stemmed more from the messenger than the message. Yet, the thought of seeing another shore establishment meddling in the affairs of the seagoing fleet and stifling the initiative of afloat admirals should not be discounted, nor that officers deprecated attending courses ashore as this operated against the sea-time required to secure promotion.25 Warming to his subject Dreyer ended his peroration by avowing The Tactical encounter is the culminating act in war and is therefore of supreme importance, for though bad strategy may be redeemed by successful tactics, there is no remedy for defeat in battle.26

Sir Frederic Dreyer, 1936 (National Portrait Gallery, UK – NPG x167252)

As ACNS and the senior officer responsible for the tactical side of the Naval Staff, Dreyer got the last laugh, because Beatty heartily endorsed the creation of a tactical school.27 The First Sea Lords endorsement represented a climbdown of sorts, in that previously Beatty had avowed only material superiority would suffice for the service owing to the many naval secrets that had been shared with the United States Navy during the recent war to the detriment of its tactical advantage.28 Clearly, the present naval holiday and the strategic parity now accepted put support to thoughts of maintaining Britains sea supremacy through renewed construction; only recourse to superior technique seemingly remained. 

The establishment of the Tactical School in 1925 and the convening of its first course that March proved a watershed for the Royal Navy, though few initially welcomed Dreyers child with open arms.29 Its eight-week curriculum directly tied the formal doctrine of the service and the defined capabilities of British ships and aircraft against the presumed attributes of foreign counterparts in mock battle. In time, the school would evaluate specific tactical problems set by the Admiralty to assist in developing effective counters for use in fleet engagements.30 Though it cannot be claimed the school arose only because of the periods treaty regime—after all, financial stringency remained a fact of life—the regime initiated at Washington made the venue ever the more necessary. 

 Unsurprisingly, the Admiralty treated the creation of the Tactical School and its curriculum as a closely held secret. Those assigned to the course were noted as enrolled in the Senior OfficersTechnical Course, Part IIwith the school itself operating under the cover of the Navigation School, HMS Dryad. This subterfuge proved difficult to sustain as officers of the Royal Air Force, also attending the course, began to confuse it with another venue, the Senior OfficersTechnical Course, Part I. Thus, in 1930 the Admiralty formally adopted the title Tactical Coursein place of the cumbersome appellation Senior OfficersTechnical Course, Part II.31 Still, evidently one not confused was the United States Navy which quickly learned of the school and its purpose. 

Another change following on from the Washington treaty regime was the steady allocation of British front-line naval strength from home waters to the Mediterranean Station. Proposed by the Director of Plans Captain Barry Domvile in February 1922 to address the changed strategic situation, a corollary benefit touted was its aid in tactical training given the better climatic conditions existing there.32

Captain Barry Domvile, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery, UK – NPG x28907)

Of course, not all tactical changes stemmed from on high with many originating within the seagoing fleets. Here, the efforts of Admiral Sir Charles Madden, the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, came to the fore based on his evaluation of fleet exercises. Thus, Madden proposed that the primary objective of British submarines should now be the heavy ships of an enemy fleet and not his mercantile trade as had been enunciated at Washington. This recommendation stemmed from the extraordinarily successful attacks the Third Submarine Flotilla had registered against the Atlantic Fleets battle squadrons in exercises off the Balearic Islands.33 Six months later and again drawing upon the lessons of recent Atlantic Fleet serials, Madden noted Britains post-Washington battle fleet would not likely exceed twelve ships. Accordingly, he proposed increasing the distance between deployed battleships from 2.5 to four cables with the object of decreasing the risk of hits by torpedoes without increasing the Gunnery Concentration difficulties or unduly increasing the length of the line.34

Maddens suggestion soon won approval and though the new cruising arrangement afforded a degree of protection from torpedo attack, the increased distance between divisions proved insufficient to allow a subordinate flag officer to fight his division with real freedom, and without having constantly to consider the movements and distance away of the other divisions.35  

Admiral Sir Charles Madden, Bt (National Portrait Gallery, UK – NPG x181639)

As the presumed superior fleet, the navy had deprecated battle at night between capital ships believing its outcome owed too much to luck. Post-Washington, this stance changed and while that treaty cannot be vouched the sole reason why, parity between fleets gave an impetus to perfecting its performance in a nighttime encounter.36 The gamut of interwar tactical training is well documented in the series Progress in Tactics which recorded the issues under investigation in the many serials executed by the fleets and squadrons of the Royal Navy.37 Many had their origins in shortfalls identified in the surface naval actions of the World War, reflected the incorporation of aircraft in fleet operations, or appeared because Japan was now viewed as the most probable enemy. Yet, other investigations owed their origins to the treaty regime initiated at Washington. Here, one may cite the problem of a British fleet engaging a peer competitor whose force lacked the support of battle cruisers. This reference to the United States Navy foreshadowed that the functions British battle cruisers performed must perforce be conditioned by the relative strength of the opposing battle fleet.38 In all this, Richmond would have approved for as he himself had noted: 

While it is the business of the strategist and the organiser to bring a superior force against the enemy at the decisive point, it is the business of the tactician to fight with whatever force he is furnished.39       

Sir Maurice Hankey, 1919 (National Portrait Gallery, UK – NPG 4650)

Looking on from a hundred years, one might conclude that the faith exhibited by statesmen in what had been secured at Washington smacked of naiveté and that it was naval officers such as Dreyer, Grenfell and Richmond who retained a truer appreciation of present verities. Yet, that would be too narrow a reading. The World War remained a haunting legacy for all. This included the United States which might be afforded as having had a good war. With the proceedings opening on 12 November 1921—the day after an unknown soldier from that war had been interred at Arlington National Cemetery—the magnitude of what followed was not lost on Charles Evans Hughes, Arthur Balfour, and their peers. If they had aspired to do better, then they also accepted that the secured results remained subject to that other verity in international discourse rarely voiced but always present: rebus sic stantibus.40 In sum, the faith of statesmen, no less than professionals, proved more limited with all relying on that other surety: Fear God and dread nought!

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 


  1. Those attending the conference included the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, China, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal with representatives from India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand attached to the British delegation.
  2. On the background of the competition in naval armaments see Jonathan Steinberg, Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet (Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1992).
  3. Namely, Russia and Germany whose latent power France much feared. The French price for considering a reduction in land armaments remained a collective guarantee of defense from the other powers. See The National Archives, Richmond, Surrey, United Kingdom, hereafter, TNA, CAB[inet
  4. TNA F[oreign
  5. TNA CAB 30/5, Balfour telegram No. 73 of 28 November 1921.
  6. The increase became necessary owing to the disadvantage it placed upon France and Italy where they would be limited to operating a single aircraft carrier and, thence none, whilst undergoing refit.
  7. TNA A[DM
  8. S. W. Roskill, HMS Warspite: The Story of a Famous Battleship (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 86.
  9. TNA CAB 23/45/11, Cabinet minutes, 21 February 1923.
  10. On the background to the Singapore Naval Base see James Neidpath, The Singapore Naval Base and the Defence of Britain’s Eastern Empire 1919-1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
  11. Diary entry of 20 October 1927, Charles Harding Drage Papers, Imperial War Museum, London, United Kingdom, PP/MCR/99, Reel 2. Chatham House, more formally then, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
  12. TNA ADM 196/126 (F. Bennett) and ADM 203/100, ‘Royal Naval War College, Officers Attending, Essays and Lecturers’.
  13. On the War College curriculum and the influence of Richmond see the author’s, Thinking Wisely, Planning Boldly: The Higher Education and Training of Royal Naval Officers, 1919-39 (Solihull: Helion & Company Limited, 2014).
  14. H. Richmond to R. Keyes letter of 30 November 1921 in Paul G. Halpern, ed., The Keyes Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral the Fleet Baron Keyes of Zeebrugge, Volume II (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1980), 64-6.
  15. Ibid.
  16. ‘Tactics,’ Spring 1920, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom, NMM/RIC/10/2.
  17. [Anon.
  18. ‘Notes on Tactics,’ undated, Admiral Sir William Fisher papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom, NMM/FHR/17.
  19. TNA ADM 196/54 (R. Grenfell). Grenfell had been earmarked to serve in the Training and Staff Duties Division of the Naval Staff in September 1935, but the appointment was subsequently canceled.
  20. The assessment was rendered by Jellicoe and seconded by Admirals Chatfield, Walter Cowan, Frederick Field and Henry Oliver over succeeding years; see TNA ADM 196/89 (F. Dreyer).
  21. R. Grenfell to B. Liddell Hart letter of 2 June 1937, Sir Basil Liddell Hart Papers, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College, London, LH 1/330/9.
  22. The estimate is Dreyer’s. See Frederic Dreyer, The Sea Heritage: A Study of Maritime Warfare (London: Museum Press, 1955), 178.
  23. Ibid, 279.
  24. To wit, Rear Admirals Vernon Haggard, Christopher Payne and Charles Beaty-Powell; As President of the Royal Naval College Greenwich, Admiral Sir George Hope directed the course.
  25. D. Pound to H. Richmond letter of 19 January 1925, Richmond Papers, NMM/RIC/7/3a and Barry D. Hunt, Sailor-Scholar: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, 1871-1946 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982), 127.
  26. TNA ADM 1/8658/69, Dreyer lecture, ‘Study of War & of the Conduct of Naval Operations,’ 23 June 1924.
  27. Dreyer, Sea Heritage, 279.
  28. Beatty to Admiralty letter No. 310/H.F. 0050 of 4 April 1919, Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle Papers, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom, NMM/FRE/315/315.
  29. The establishment of the coursed was promulgated to the service via a Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order issued on 19 December 1924; see TNA ADM 182/83, ‘3380.-Tactical Courses-Information as to Institution, etc., To be withheld from Press, Foreign Officers and Public.’
  30. See especially TNA ADM 239/142, C.B. 03016/39 Progress in Tactics, Admiralty, Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division, June 1939 and ADM 186/154, C.B. 1769/33(2), Exercises & Operations, 1933, Volume II, Admiralty, Naval Staff, Tactical Division, April 1934, 8.
  31. TNA ADM 192/89, Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order ‘576.-Senior Officers’ Technical Courses—Change of Name,’ issued 22 February 1930.
  32. B. Domvile minute of 24 February 1922 in Paul G. Halpern, ed., The Mediterranean Fleet, 1919-1929 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 335-7.
  33. TNA ADM 116/2173, Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet to Admiralty letter No. 257/A.H. 1124 of 14 August 1922.
  34. TNA ADM 1/8628/130, Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet to Admiralty letter No. 1119/A.H. 1120 of 14 August 1922. The suggestion was formally adopted in 1927 and specified in Admiralty Fleet Order 2358 of 7 October 1927; see TNA ADM 182/50, Admiralty Fleet Orders.
  35. C.B. 3016/31, Progress in Tactics, 1931, Admiralty, Naval Staff, Tactical Division, August 1932, 29.
  36. TNA ADM 1/9411, Chatfield to Naval Staff minute M.F.O. 102/36, 20 March 1936.
  37. C.B. 3016, Progress in Tactics, Admiralty, Naval Staff, Tactical Division, multiple editions, British Sources Box 12, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC.
  38. C.B. 3016/31, Progress in Tactics, 1931, 42.
  39. Richmond, ‘Tactics,’ Spring Session 1920, Royal Naval War College, Richmond Papers, NMM/RIC/10/2, 28.
  40. This was the sense of a minute by Hankey at the time; see TNA CAB 30/31, M. Hankey to A. Balfour minute of 3 January 1922.

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U.S. Asiatic Fleet Submarines 1941-42: An Evaluation of Senior Leadership

James P. Ransom III
Independent Historian

There exists a misperception of submarines as self-sufficient hunters, prowling the seas and conducting their operations with little oversight, using only the cunning of their commanding officers and resourcefulness of their crews to perform their mission. But the reality is that despite the independent nature of their operations, American submarines in the Second World War, with their cramped living and working conditions and small crews, required significant support from a shore staff of senior personnel with technical and operational submarine expertise. 

In pre-war Manila, home of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the squadron commander and a small staff provided this support . They were embarked aboard submarine tender Canopus, which spent the majority of her time in port, brimming with repair and logistics experts, with access to the naval repair facility and logistics hub at Cavite Navy Yard. The squadron commander was responsible for directing the operations of the Asiatic Fleet’s submarines on behalf of the fleet commander. He and his staff oversaw the training and material condition of their assigned submarines and crews, and controlled the communications that facilitated their operations. Once hostilities commenced, they established the operational deployment plan for their submarines to achieve strategic effects, provided them with intelligence and information concerning events in theater, and provided the fleet commander with reports sent from submarines in their patrol areas, in order to help bring clarity on the overall strategic picture. When they ordered the submarines into port, they ensured the replenishment of torpedoes, fuel, spare parts, and food, and organized vital repairs. They collected and disseminated lessons learned from recent operations, and certified the submarines ready for their next underway period. The submarines could not perform their duties without this vital organization.

In evaluating the senior leadership of Asiatic Fleet submarines, two officers stand out for leading their force in challenging circumstances. Despite the eventual disappointing performance of their assigned submarines, these men worked hard to perform their duties to prepare their boats for war, to execute their operational plan in the face of adversity, to reassess and adapt as events unfolded, and to make major decisions that affected their force. They carefully evaluated the results reported by commanding officers to recommend changes in operational plans and tactics, and sometimes to relieve skippers who did not meet their standards of performance. 

This is a story of tenacity in the face of daunting challenges, with few successes and many failures. However, their efforts were significant to the eventual improvement in performance of U.S. submarines in the war after the rocky start. 

Asiatic Fleet Submarines and Personnel Prepare for War

Manila had the largest concentration of modern American submarines in December 1941.1 Admiral Thomas C. Hart was the Asiatic Fleet commander (CinCAF), and had been associated with submarine torpedoes, operations, and design since before the First World War. He had high hopes for their success. 

Commander John E. Wilkes, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1916, was the senior submarine officer under Hart on the Asiatic Fleet staff. He was tall and tough, an excellent athlete in college. He was described as being “somewhat of a martinet,” with a stern and irascible demeanor.2 Wilkes commanded one of the first prototype fleet boats and a submarine division in Manila in 1939 before assuming command of the squadron there. 

Following his arrival as CinCAF in 1939, Hart had steadily increased the number of submarines assigned to his small fleet from six to seventeen, including the first modern fleet-type boats. As the war clouds gathered in November 1941, another squadron of twelve modern fleet boats with their submarine tender Holland sailed into Manila Bay from Pearl Harbor as reinforcements. Their arrival created something of an organizational dilemma. Wilkes was due to rotate back stateside, and Hart could ill-afford to lose his experience and knowledge of Western Pacific operations, the boats, and the skippers. His designated relief, Commander James Fife Jr., USNA 1918, had just reported. However, Fife was significantly junior to Captain Walter E. Doyle, USNA 1913, who commanded the newly arrived Submarine Squadron Two. Doyle had worked for Hart in the mid-1930s at the Naval Academy when Hart was Superintendent. He had commanded a fleet boat and Holland, but otherwise had an unremarkable career. Hart had never been impressed with him.3

By navy convention, as the senior submarine officer, Doyle should relieve Wilkes. But Hart had misgivings. His solution was to have Fife, a cerebral and highly respected submariner, serve as Doyle’s chief of staff. Fife had served as a naval attaché to Great Britain in 1940-41. In that billet he had directly observed much of the naval war in the Mediterranean during his travels, including embarking Royal Navy submarines on war patrols. After returning to the U.S. from this tour, he visited U.S. Navy commands to present his observations. He went to Manila in June 1941, where he briefed Hart and his staff, and hand-carried to him the new Rainbow Five war plans.4

The arrival of Doyle’s squadron gave Hart’s submarine force twenty-three modern fleet boats and six elderly S-Class boats. He decided an organizational change was required for the war that he believed was imminent. He dissolved the administrative structure of two submarine squadrons, each with multiple divisions.  The new organization was designated Commander Submarines, U.S. Asiatic Fleet (CSAF). With the submarines now the Asiatic Fleet’s most powerful striking force,5 the reorganization would optimize the focus on supporting wartime operations. 

On December 1st, the day that CSAF was officially established, Doyle relieved Wilkes and assumed responsibility for all U.S. submarines in the Far East. Hart ordered Wilkes to remain in the Philippines, eying the deteriorating strategic situation with Japan and looking to maintain an ace in the hole. His final piece to the submarine leadership puzzle was to have Wilkes stay on as a “special advisor” to CSAF.6 The new submarine commander would have the support of Wilkes, Fife, and five former submarine division commanders—three with significant experience in the Far East and two who had come along with Doyle. All were post-command officers of high abilities. 

CSAF deployed two S-boats on 2 and 3 December: S-36 to Lingayen Gulf, where planners had long expected the Japanese would eventually land in force once war erupted, and S-39 to Sorsogon Bay to provide overwatch on the strategic San Bernadino Strait. The other twenty-seven boats sat in port on the evening of 7 December as everyone awaited Japan’s next move. It was clear that the Japanese were moving, as reports of ship movements southward were received. But where this blow would land was the subject of conjecture: would it be aimed at Thailand, or against British Malaya, or even directly at the Dutch East Indies? And how would the Japanese choose to deal with the United States and its territory of the Philippines? 

A Most Tumultuous Campaign

On 8 December, the Japanese simultaneously struck multiple locations throughout the Far East. Landings occurred on Thailand’s Kra Isthmus aimed at driving into Malaya, and other forces attacked Hong Kong. They also landed on the Philippine island of Batan north of Luzon, and hammered at American airpower on Luzon and Mindanao. Their initial air attacks decimated General Douglas MacArthur’s air forces. As a result, the enemy was able to operate over the Philippines and surrounding seas with little opposition from American air power. Hart immediately sent a radio message to his fleet to commence unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan.

CSAF immediately deployed seven submarines off Japanese naval bases in Formosa, Hainan, and Indochina, ten boats to the north and east of Luzon and in the inter-island waters south of Luzon, and six boats in defensive areas on the west coast of Luzon. By 11 December, twenty-three submarines were at sea for operations against the enemy. 

On 10 December Hart directed Doyle to turn command of CSAF back to Wilkes, ordering Doyle to take tenders Otus and Holland and several other ships to escape south. The implication was clear: Hart had not been satisfied with Doyle’s performance in command. He stated that it was “no time for [a] green boss.”7 Doyle had been insecure in Hart’s presence. While the staff should have been getting into a rhythm with their new organization, instead they wasted half their day preparing Doyle for disastrous meetings to brief Hart.8 Later on, the 10th Japanese bombers appeared in the empty skies over Manila. With unhurried precision they destroyed the Cavite Navy Yard, sinking submarine Sealion and damaging Seadragon. 

Back in command, Wilkes split the CSAF staff into two teams. He led one group while Fife led the other. They shared duties around the clock—port and starboard watches in navy parlance—to monitor, direct, and support the operations of their submarines. With so many submarines at sea, someone had to be on watch at all hours to respond to the boats and direct their operations. With Japanese aircraft controlling the skies, the CSAF staff moved ashore from Canopus to take over the abandoned former Enlisted Men’s Club. Wilkes observed, “You could have set your watch” by the hour of the daily arrival of Japanese planes, and his men raced for slit trenches outside the club as bombs rained down.9 The bombing raids also forced the submarines in Manila Bay to bottom during attacks, disrupting repairs and provisioning, and further exhausting the crews. Without air protection, the days of operating submarines from Manila were numbered. 

John Wilkes and Jimmy Fife had very different temperaments and leadership styles. Wilkes was more tightly wound, but still respected for his knowledge and leadership. Fife was described as being supremely dedicated to his work, and one of the hardest working and best prepared officers anyone knew. Wilkes was known to enjoy a drink with his staff, while Fife was a teetotaler. While he could be stern, Wilkes was said to also have a human side to him. Fife, on the other hand, was described as being “without warmth.” Hart thought very highly of both these officers.10

American submarines tried desperately to derail the carefully planned and skillfully executed Japanese operational scheme to encircle the Philippines. Landings at Vigan and Aparri in northern Luzon on 10 December and at Legaspi in southeastern Luzon on the 12th were just preliminaries to the main event. The boats were either late in arriving in the areas or ineffective in disrupting the invading ships. When the main invasion materialized off Lingayen Gulf late on 21 December, Stingray reported the invasion convoy but failed to attack. Wilkes ordered several boats to converge on the gulf and attack, dispensing with area restrictions designed to keep the boats apart to prevent fratricide. But by that time it was too late. Aggressive convoy escorts repelled boats attempting to enter the gulf. Only S-38 was able to penetrate and sink one ship. Wilkes’ submarines failed to attrite or impede the largest enemy invasion convoy of the war.11

As Japanese troops rapidly moved south from Lingayen, MacArthur declared Manila an open city on the 25th. Admiral Hart departed Manila on submarine Shark for Surabaya on the island of Java the next day, looking to prepare for the next phase of the campaign. At the same time, the Japanese were shifting their attention to their main prize, the oil and other resources of the Dutch East Indies.

Meanwhile, some of the boats returning from their initial patrols reported instances of defective torpedoes and attacks that should have produced hits but did not. By the end of December, U.S. submarines had sunk only three Japanese ships.12 After three weeks the submarines had been unable to slow the enemy advances, and worrisome indications of defective torpedoes and missed shots on perfectly set-up short range attacks were becoming apparent to some skippers.

As December came to a close, Wilkes ordered the evacuation of his boats from Manila, taking as many spare parts and torpedoes as they could. His team rode Swordfish south to Surabaya, a major Dutch naval base, while Fife and his team rode Seawolf to Port Darwin, Australia, where Holland had established herself. Fife noted that this was done “so that in case one group was lost…the command could have continued.”13 A week after reaching their destinations, Wilkes ordered Fife and his group to Surabaya to reconstitute the staff.

Prior to departure from the Philippines, Hart and Wilkes had directed how and when the boats should depart their patrol stations in the north and begin repositioning south. The instructions left the decision to depart station in the hands of the skippers. As food and water stocks depleted or material casualties mounted, one by one the boats left their stations to transit south to resupply and prepare for their next patrols.14 This haphazard straggling south would detract from CSAF’s ability to oppose Japanese operations more effectively in the Dutch East Indies.

The shift of the playing field from the Philippines to the Dutch East Indies brought new challenges. There were many seas and straits nestled among thousands of islands, and dangerous reefs were scattered  amid the poorly charted waterways.15 Another challenge was coordinating with allies, as the Americans, British, Dutch and Australians had combined their forces under the new ABDA Command. Wilkes’ submariners also now faced an uncertain supply and repair situation. 

Submarines would continue operating in and around the Philippines even as the focus changed to defending the Dutch East Indies north of the Malay Barrier. In January submarine patrol days in the South China Sea and around the Philippines still comprised 60 percent of total patrol days on station, but in February it dropped to 10 percent as the action and the boats moved south. 

Although Wilkes wanted to focus his forces on the operational challenge of defending the Malay Barrier, political concerns would force him to dilute that effort. In an effort to assuage the War Department, who were responding to requests from MacArthur to supply and reinforce his beleaguered forces in Bataan and on Corregidor, the navy directed Hart to conduct frequent special missions to the Philippines. These submarine missions could only bring in small amounts of ammunition and stores and evacuate limited numbers of personnel, while essentially removing the special mission boat from performing a standard anti-shipping patrol for over a month. 

Wilkes felt these requests were not the best use of his forces—he was focused on sinking Japanese ships and disrupting their movement south—but was overridden by higher authority because of the importance placed on the missions. Probably more important than what they brought in was who they brought out, including Philippines President Manuel Quezon and U.S. High Commissioner Francis Sayer and their families, along with vital codebreaking personnel and many army nurses. Asiatic Fleet submarines conducted one special mission to Manila Bay in January, five in February, zero in March, two in April, and one in May just before Corregidor fell.16

Meanwhile, the enemy had the initiative, overwhelming numbers, and command of the air. Geography gifted the Japanese three distinct approaches to Java: from the western side of Borneo; through the Makassar Strait between Borneo and Celebes; and an eastern route through the Molucca Passage east of Celebes. 

The Japanese used all three routes to spread out Wilkes’ boats and the rest of the ABDA forces. They kept the submarines off balance, preventing them from concentrating against any one thrust. The Japanese Eastern Force landed in northern Celebes on 11 January, and the Center Force took Tarakan in eastern Borneo the same day. Less than two weeks later they landed at the oilfields of Balikpapan. CSAF had assembled six submarines to contest the landings there, hoping to finally achieve some significant success. But as Fife later said, the failure to sink any ships was “the greatest disappointment that any of us ever had.”17 On the 24th the Eastern Force took the port of Kendari on southeast Celebes.

Submarine Tender USS Holland (AS 3) (NHHC Photo #NH 1098)

As February arrived, the pace quickened. The Eastern Force took Makassar City in southwest Celebes on the 5th, Bali on the 18th, and Timor on the 20th. Massive land-based and carrier-based air raids on Darwin on the 19th made that port unusable. Fortunately the last submarine departed Darwin on 5 February, and Holland had moved to Tjilatjap on the southern coast of Java. By this point Surabaya wasunder bombing almost daily. The Western Force attacked Sumatra on the 14th, and when Singapore surrendered the next day, it was clear where the enemy pincers would converge next.

As ABDA surface naval forces girded themselves for the coming onslaught, CSAF closed defensive submarine patrols into the Java Sea. By late February Wilkes had positioned sixteen boats in the Java Sea and adjacent areas. But the Asiatic Fleet submarines had little effect on the battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait in which the ABDA naval forces were thoroughly defeated. The best the submarines could contribute was S-38’s rescue of survivors from a British destroyer.18

Wilkes recognized the need to evacuate the CSAF staff once again, and the eventual retreat of his submarines to Australia. He ordered Fife to take Holland to western Australia to find a suitable submarine base. With Surabaya untenable due to air raids, the boats in refit there and at Tjilatjap proceeded south to Australia, as did other boats returning from lengthy patrols. 

It was time to retreat and regroup. CSAF had lost three boats defending the Dutch East Indies: S-36 to grounding on Taka Bakang Reef off Makassar City in January, Shark to attack by probable ant-submarine forces in February, and Perch to destroyers in the Java Sea on 3 March. Wilkes boarded Spearfish on 2 March at Tjilatjap and headed south. By 20 March, nineteen of the remaining twenty-five Asiatic Fleet submarines had arrived at Fremantle, selected as the best location for basing the boats. The boats were repaired and crews received unsatisfyingly brief breathers before going back on patrol, Sculpin being the first to depart on 13 March. Wilkes and Fife were now faced with the task of establishing proper basing and maintenance, a program for providing sufficient crew rest to recover between patrols, and—perhaps most importantly—to determine the lessons of the previous three months. 

CSAF Leadership Assessed

An evaluation of Asiatic Fleet submarine leadership includes Hart, as the commander in chief who formulated and executed overall strategy, but also analyzes the control and direction of the Wilkes/Fife team. As CSAF commander and chief of staff, both were integral to decision-making and the smooth operation of the organization during a period of near-constant change. Wilkes of course had the final say, but Fife was an important element of the command process, and during much of the period the two led parallel elements within CSAF to ensure round the clock attention to the needs of their submarines. This assessment must address pre-war preparations, the execution of their responsibilities during the campaign, and how they reassessed and adjusted to improve submarine performance once they had completed the retreat to Fremantle. 

Pre-war Preparations

Pre-war factors that reflect on CSAF leadership include training the crews, maintaining material condition of the boats, organizing the staff for success, and preparing an operational plan for war. 

Wilkes has been criticized for inadequate training before the war. Much of this is levelled by Clay Blair in his comprehensive and authoritative Silent Victory, but Hart himself vaguely stated of submarine training that it was not “realistic in certain respects.”19 Blair faults Wilkes and Rear Admiral Thomas Withers, the commander of the Pacific Submarine Force at Pearl Harbor, for overseeing unrealistic training. Blair includes a statement by a junior officer aboard Seawolf prior to the war who decried formation steaming exercises overseen by Wilkes during transits that added little value to upcoming combat operations.20 However, although often from the mouths of babes comes truth, they also frequently fail to understand the broader picture. Exactly how much and the type of pre-war training that CSAF required of its submarines is difficult to determine. But the entire fleet spent six weeks operating out of Tawi Tawi in the southern Philippines in the spring of 1941, with significant emphasis on submarine gunnery and torpedo practice, as well as familiarizing the crews with far-flung operating areas. It might have benefitted future operations had Wilkes been able to send a few boats into the Dutch East Indies to get used to the region and bring back some decent charts, but they were likely not planning on an eventual retreat to the south.

Wilkes, like other senior submariners of the time, was very concerned with the threat to submarines from aircraft, urging skippers to conduct submerged approaches from deep using only rudimentary and unreliable sound information to allow for an undetected attack. However, data from Wilkes’ own Action Report indicated less than 7 percent of Asiatic Fleet submarine attacks from December 1941 through March 1942 used sound-only tactics.21 It is clear the skippers were dubious of their chances for a hit in shooting from deep, and shifted to pericope or surfaced attacks. Fear of aircraft also drove CSAF to plan that their boats would operate submerged during the daytime and surface at night for communications and to charge batteries. As a result, skippers remained deep during daylight, thereby severely restricting detection ranges and reducing attack opportunities. The increased submerged operations also slowed their overall speed of advance and increased response time—it took longer for the boats to transit to and from patrol areas or to react to intelligence reports from CSAF. 

Wilkes was like most senior submariners in not emphasizing night surface training. This oversight resulted in Japanese anti-submarine forces, superbly trained for night fighting, routinely thwarting night surface approaches and forcing the submarines to relinquish the initiative to submerge and evade. Wilkes also failed to implement pre-war, long-range practice patrols as Withers did for his force. As a result, Asiatic Fleet skippers and crews were unfamiliar with the psychological effects of lengthy onboard confinement. One skipper noted in his post-patrol report that he felt two and three week patrols were at the limit of crew endurance; comments that must have seemed hilarious to crews on later war patrols of 50-60 days.22

Some of his commanding officers thought Wilkes did not pay enough attention to maintenance and the material condition of his boats.23 But repairs were complicated by the long logistics trail from the U.S. to the Philippines. Fife said, “the maintenance and repair in the Philippines had never been completely adequate.”24 It is doubtful that much could have been done to improve the situation. 

Hart and Wilkes showed good forethought in restructuring the squadrons for implementation on 1 December into a CSAF organization better able to support wartime operations. But doing so earlier might have allowed the new organization to settle into a good routine rather than having to figure it all out amid the crucible of  war. In fairness, many of the key players (Doyle and his division commanders, and Fife) did not arrive in theater until mid- to late-November 1941. 

Wilkes and his staff had developed a deployment plan for his submarines before the outbreak of war, such that the orders only required adding boat names and verifying proper routing instructions before presenting them to the commanding officers. The Asiatic Fleet submarine deployment plan was designed to send one-third of the boats across the South China Sea to patrol off Japanese bases on Formosa, Hainan, and Indochina. Another one-third would be assigned defensive patrol areas off the coasts of the main Philippine island of Luzon to oppose any Japanese landing forces that might approach. The final one-third of the boats would be held in reserve to relieve the initial deployers or to be sent where needed as the situation developed. Many of these were sent to “standby stations” to the south of Luzon in the inter-island area.25 As American air power was destroyed early in the conflict and the strategic situation worsened, Hart decided to scrap plans for the reserve force and got as many boats underway as possible.

While the deployment plan was reasonable, Hart should be held accountable for not sending his submarines to sea when war seemed imminent in late November and early December. He should have sent boats to sea for reconnaissance operations or on practice war patrols to get the crews primed for the war he believed was imminent. Some have contended that he was hamstrung by war warning messages that cautioned against an accidental first shot or provoking the Japanese. Hart himself wrote that the submarines “detailed to the offensive positions did not start for their stations before the war began because Washington ordered a ‘defensive’ deployment.”26 But Hart and Wilkes sent submarines to screen transports bringing the Fourth Marines from Shanghai to Manila in late November, which were detected and closely observed by Japanese warships. Their presence provoked great curiosity, but no adverse reactions or trigger-happy incidents.27 I would argue that it was a mistake to have only two boats at sea when the war started. The fleet commander should not have felt his hands were tied by directives from Washington that restricted his ability to protect his force and U.S. national interests. Sending submarines to sea to observe and report while remaining undetected could have provided critical information on Japanese operations and intentions, with the added benefit of having some boats on station when the shooting began.

Leadership During the Campaign 

A major failure of submarine leadership occurred on the very first day of the war. As senior officers were briefing skippers prior to getting underway, they counseled them to “use caution and feel their way” on their first patrol.28 One division commander told the commanding officers “Don’t try to go out there and win the Congressional Medal of Honor. The submarines are all we have left. Your crews are more valuable than anything else. Bring them back.”29 Wilkes later sent radio messages to the boats urging aggressiveness to penetrate Lingayen Gulf, but skippers did not press their attempts after meeting Japanese destroyers who detected them and stole the initiative.30 Rather than firing the skippers up to go out and do their utmost to attack and destroy the enemy, a “pep talk” advocating caution set the wrong tone if the desired result was to put Japanese hulls on the bottom.

Rear Admiral John Wilkes, USN (left) Watches a dawn landing exercise at Woolacombe, England, on 31 October 1943. With him is Captain Chauncey Camp, USN. (National Archives Photo #80-G-252063)

Once at war, the most important tasks the CSAF staff could address were to provide the boats with intelligence on enemy movements and direct them to areas where they could attack enemy forces. In this they were seriously hindered by the loss of control of the skies early in the war. Without aerial reconnaissance, CSAF lacked the primary means of cuing to best position their assets. This would ensure that Wilkes’ submarines would be, to use a submariner’s term, “chasing the bubble.” They were reactive, not proactive, in their operations. A key indicator of senior leadership lagging behind the problem was that over 60 percent of submarine patrol days in January were still spent in areas around and near the Philippines, even as the Japanese had shifted their offensive to the south against the Dutch East Indies. 

Some might argue that the CSAF staff being somewhat out of touch with the operational situation while repositioning to the south during the first week or so of January provides reason for this failure. While true, the real failure was in not taking a more proactive approach to directing some submarines southward before the CSAF staff embarked on Swordfish and Seawolf to head south, once it was apparent the naval campaign for the Philippines was lost. It had been hoped that the submarines would be able to significantly disrupt Japanese landing operations, but once the bulk of the 14th Army was ashore at Lingayen Gulf the leadership should have begun redirecting some of their boats southward in advance of the obvious next phase of the campaign. While it is a natural inclination for the shore commander to want to arrive in the new theater before his submarines and prepare the logistics, in this case it severely hampered the ability to effectively oppose Japanese operations in the Dutch East Indies during the months of January and February.

The staff did a better job of maintaining communications with the boats and supporting their supply and repairs to keep them operating under difficult circumstances. CSAF’s round-the-clock watch organization was generally effective in maintaining control and directing the operations of its submarines. The organization truly excelled in providing the highest quality logistics and repair support possible under extremely dynamic and challenging circumstances. The majority of Wilkes’ staff officers were employed in material support to the boats, with far fewer involved in operations and communications. The staff did an excellent job of directing the tenders to provide voyage repairs and spare parts to the submarines, and in doling out food and precious torpedoes as they prepared for their upcoming war patrols. 

One thing the CSAF leadership could not do was give the boats reliable torpedoes. Unacceptable prewar development, testing, and evaluation of the Mark 14 torpedo and the Mark 6 magnetic exploder were to plague the boats throughout the first eighteen months of the war. To Wilkes’ credit, he listened to his skippers and identified the problems to the Bureau of Ordinance in January 1942.31 But they dismissed his concerns, ensuring continued frustration, missed opportunities, and costing the loss of boats and crews. 

Wilkes faced some critical decisions during the campaign. He deserves criticism for not sending more submarines into the fight against the Lingayen invasion. However, he showed excellent control and forethought in evacuating from Manila and Java. While forced upon him by necessity, the evacuations were professionally accomplished under difficult circumstances. As previously mentioned, the haphazard manner in which the boats shifted south after the staff evacuated Manila should have been better controlled. 

The decision to send boats to operate out of Darwin should have been more carefully considered. Wilkes thought that was where the majority of the boats would be based.32 But its distance from Hart and the ultimate Japanese objective of Java, as well as the lack of consideration for the political implications from the Dutch perspective, led to a rapid reversal to operate out of Surabaya.

One of Wilkes’ more important duties was to ensure his skippers were aggressively pressing attacks to deal damage to the enemy. Those who did not were relieved. During the campaign, Wilkes relieved eight commanding officers; four for lack of results (or what he termed temperamental inaptitude), three at their own request, and one for medical reasons. Although these decisions were closely scrutinized, one skipper stated, “I don’t know a single one who didn’t deserve to be relieved.”33

In general, the submarine leadership was adequate during the initial operations in and around the Philippines and during the retrograde southward to the Malay Barrier and eventually to West Australia. Both Wilkes and Fife demonstrated great energy and dedication, with solid if not inspiring leadership of the staff and good support to their boats. While they made the best of a deteriorating situation, some additional forethought and planning might have yielded better operational results.

Post-campaign Leadership

Once the campaign ended in defeat and retreat to Australia, CSAF adapted quickly, established basing and processes, and began sending boats back on patrol. Wilkes began the search for suitable rest facilities and refit crew procedures to allow for adequate post-patrol recovery for weary submarine crews. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Rear Admiral Charles A. Lockwood in May to relieve Wilkes that this issue was resolved. 

What really stands out, however, were the efforts to assess the events of the previous four months and promulgate recommendations and implement changes. Fife “practically locked [himself] up” for a month to write an extraordinary 72-page “Action Report” that was delivered to the Chief of Naval Operations in April 1942.34

The document contained a summary of the campaign, and incorporated the skippers’ perspective based on their individual war patrol reports. It provided a frank assessment and insightful recommendations to operate the submarines with better results in future operations. The report credited the Japanese for their anti-submarine measures, raised concerns about torpedo performance, discussed submarine commanding officer performance issues, recommended submarines patrol along shipping lanes rather than at departure and destination points, and proposed upgrading the boats with important alterations, including surface search radar and reducing sail silhouette to improve night surface detectability. But it failed to take a critical look at some important operational decisions by Hart and Wilkes that might have given the submarines better opportunities for success against the Japanese onslaught.

Epilogue and Conclusion

Tommy Hart was not present for the demise of his Asiatic Fleet. He was recalled in mid-February, replaced through backdoor maneuvering to Washington by Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich.35 Red Doyle departed Fremantle for the U.S. aboard a transport in March 1942, retiring quietly in 1943.36 John Wilkes would go on to achieve flag rank, but he had no further service with the submarine forces during the war. Instead, he was an important factor in preparing the landing forces for the invasion of Normandy. After the war he would serve as Commander, Submarines, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The one senior Asiatic fleet submarine leader who continued to contribute to the submarine war against Japan was Jimmy Fife. He commanded all submarine operations out of Brisbane Australia before returning to Fremantle in 1944 to command the submarine forces of the Seventh Fleet for the remainder of the war.

John Wilkes and Jimmy Fife had different personalities and leadership styles, but they complemented each other as they guided the submarines of the Asiatic Fleet through tumultuous events. It is a tribute to the strength of their teamwork that they were able to control so many submarines across such a vast expanse of ocean under adverse and constantly changing circumstances, giving the boats opportunities to be in position to confront the enemy. No less praiseworthy are Wilkes’ raising the red flag about torpedo performance only a month into the war, and Fife’s efforts and dedication to write the insightful report that so accurately captured the lessons of those chaotic months. 

These senior officers proved their mettle by exercising solid leadership during a period of retreat and failure. While they certainly could have executed some of their responsibilities to achieve slightly better results, it is unlikely that any changes would have altered the eventual outcome of the campaign. 

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 


  1. Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York:Random House Inc., 1985), 483. Spector quotes war correspondent Hanson Baldwin.
  2. James Fife, The Reminiscences of James Fife (oral history interviews conducted by John T. Mason). (Oral History Archives at Columbia, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, 1962), 272.
  3. Fife, Reminiscences, 214-215.
  4. Fife, Reminiscences, 188-189, 194-197. See also James Fife, Narrative – Interview recorded 15 February 1944. (Transcript in Clay Blair Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming (hereafter CBC/AHC), Box 67 Folder 5), 2.
  5. The Asiatic Fleet was the smallest of the three U.S. Navy fleets. It contained no battleships or aircraft carriers, one heavy and two light cruisers, thirteen WW1-era destroyers, the old seaplane tender Langley, and various support and auxiliary vessels. See W. G. Winslow. The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1982). Hart considered the submarines “constituted most of the potentiality of the fleet.” See Thomas C. Hart. War in the Pacific: End of the Asiatic Fleet (Staunton, Virginia: Clarion Publishing, 2013), 39-40. This source was originally a classified Narrative of Events written by Hart after his recall from the Far East in February 1942.
  6. John E. Wilkes. Narrative – Interview by Captain Wright, recorded 26 April 1945. (hereafter “Wilkes interview,” CBC/AHC, Box 64 Folder 3), 2. See also Clay Blair. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1975), 131-132.
  7. Stuart S. Murray. Interview notes by Clay Blair 17 June 1971 (hereafter “Blair’s Murray interview notes,” CBC/AHC, Box 69, Folder 4), sect. 3.
  8. Fife Reminiscences, 214-215.
  9. Wilkes interview, 3-4.
  10. Clay Blair notes, CBC/AHC Box 60 Folder 2. Blair interviewed dozens of submariners who served with Wilkes and Fife, recording their observations on their leadership and character. For Hart’s assessment of Wilkes, see Hart, 50.
  11. Blair, 145-152. See also John E. Wilkes. War Activities Submarines, U.S. Asiatic Fleet December 1, 1941 – April 1, 1942. (hereafter “Wilkes Report,” National Archives, RG 38), 8-9.
  12. John D. Alden and Craig R. McDonald. United States and Allied Submarine Successes in the Pacific and Far East During World War II, 4th Ed. (Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009), 27-29.
  13. Fife Reminiscences, 238. It was Hart who directed Wilkes on Swordfish by message to proceed to Surabaya. When the boats got underway on December 31, they did not know where they were headed – only “south.” See also Blair’s Murray interview notes, sect. 9.
  14. Wilkes Report, 12.
  15. Hart, 81-82.
  16. Theodore Roscoe. U.S. Submarine Operations in World War II. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1949), 508. The numbers do not include a mission by Trout from COMSUBPAC in February and three other Asiatic Fleet submarines which got underway for special missions planned for April/May but were recalled due to the fall of Bataan or Corregidor. Of the five Asiatic Fleet special missions to Manila in February, two were performed by Swordfish on the same patrol to extricate Quezon and Sayre and their families in successive trips to Manila Bay.
  17. Fife Reminiscences, 252.
  18. H. G. Munson, USS S-38. “HMS ELECTRA, Rescue of Survivors,” Confidential memo to Chief of Naval Operations dated March 13, 1942. (Accessed on
  19. Hart, 61.
  20. Blair, 156.
  21. Wilkes Report, 61-70. Many have mentioned that pre-war training stressed using the sound-only approach from deep, but the reality was that it was used very little, even at the start of the war. When it was, it was invariably unsuccessful. But it is a myth that the submarine force relied primarily on this tactic. The periscope approach was the early skippers’ tactic of choice, until night surface tactics were perfected.
  22. Barton E. Bacon. USS Pickerel: Report of First War Patrol, December 8-29, 1941. (National Archives, RG 38), 4.
  23. Blair, 157.
  24. Fife Reminiscences, 212-213.
  25. Wilkes Report, 3-4. See also Hart, 50.
  26. Thomas C. Hart. “Narrative of Events, Asiatic Fleet Leading up to War and from 8 December 1941 to 15 February 1942,” addendum, “Supplementary Narrative” (1946) (National Archives, College Park, MD), 16-17.
  27. Wilkes interview, 2.
  28. Wilkes Report, 4.
  29. Blair, 131.
  30. Wilkes Report, 9.
  31. Wilkes Report, 44-45.
  32. Wilkes Report, 18-19.
  33. Statement by N.G. Ward, XO USS Seadragon and later CO USS Guardfish. (CBC/AHC,   Box 62 Folder 7).
  34. Fife Reminiscences, 287-291. See also Blair’s Murray interview notes, sect. 23.
  35. James Leutze. A Different Kind of Victory: A Biography of Admiral Thomas C. Hart. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1981), 272-282.
  36. USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) List of Non-Enlisted Passengers dated 6 March 1942. (Accessed at (WWII Navy Muster Rolls/M/Mount Vernon (AP-22)/1942/362).

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View From the Quarterdeck: December 2022


The International Journal of Naval History is now in its third decade of publication. Dr. Gary Weir, the Founding Editor Emeritus, recognized the potential for digital scholarship in the historical profession ahead of many contemporaries. The IJNH remains as he originally conceived it: a digital journal intended to be a naval history forum designed to stimulate naval historical research and foster communication among naval and maritime history scholars worldwide. To that end, this issue includes an article for the first time from Finland. Although retired, Gary remains engaged as a historian. He contributes a fascinating book review in this issue abort Mary Sears, a brilliant marine scientist from Massachusetts whose pioneering ocean research saved countless lives in World War II.

It is not our practice at IJNH to publish obituaries. Sadly, however, we feel compelled to mention, with utmost sadness, the demise of the Naval Historical Foundation in passing. Ironically, despite vigorous opposition, on December 7, the membership voted to disestablish itself by the year’s end and merge with the United States Naval Institute. The complete story of the downfall of an organization originally conceived by Commodore Dudley Knox over 90 years ago appears on the Naval Historical Foundation’s final webpage in an article entitled “A History of the Naval Historical Foundation.”  

I especially want to thank the erstwhile members of the Naval Historical Foundation for encouraging and providing for hosting this journal for more than twenty years on their website and retaining our digital archives of past issues. CAPT Todd Creekman, USN, Ret., former Executive Director, was indispensable to this process, as was RADM Sonny Masso, his successor. The historian for the organization, Dr. David Winkler, was instrumental in sustaining the relationship. This loss diminishes the discipline of Naval History. As the Naval Historical Foundation staff disperses for new adventures, we wish them the traditional “Fair winds and following seas” in future endeavors.

In our lead article for this issue, CAPT Jim Ransom brings his knowledge as a former submarine commander to the examination of the response of Asiatic Fleet submarines under the command of Thomas C. Hart to the demands of war in the difficult early months of World War II in the Pacific against Japan. Interestingly, the stories in this issue have a common theme: they focus on the importance of naval leadership during rapid technological change and war. CAPT Ransom concludes that “tenacity in the face of daunting challenges” would eventually result in improved performance by American submarine commanders after a rocky start in 1941.

Dr.  Henrikki Tikkanen, a Professor of Business Administration at Aalto University School of Business in Helsinki, Finland, recently completed a doctorate in history at the University of Jyvaskyla. His study analyzes the reforms in the Royal Navy undertaken in the critical years before and during the First World War by Admiral Sir John Fisher. Professor Tikkanen focuses on the role played in this era by the network of officers surrounding Fisher, referred to as “the Fishpond.” Similarly, Dr. Joe Moretz, a well-known independent scholar, examines how the Royal Navy adjusted its tactics in the wake of the realities of naval arms limitations imposed by the Washington Conference of 1921-1922.

As part of our ongoing “Inside the Archives” series, Dara Baker of the Office of Innovation of the National Archives and Records Administration brings two articles of particular significance to the maritime community. Aleksander Gelfand writes about the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Archive. This collection contains over 10,000 photographs and records about the post-World War II supply, procurement, and shipping operations of the largest relief operation up to that point in history. In the second piece, Marian Matyn of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University describes the rich maritime collections in that archive. These records demonstrate the importance of Great Lakes shipping, shore work, transportation, and everyday life in that region.

Finally, in this issue, we continue supporting and occasionally publishing the superior work of distinguished junior colleagues in the historical profession. The documentary by Tyler Kaus on Admiral Grace Hopper details the importance of her pioneering work during and after World War II in increasing the effectiveness of computers for the Navy and the business community. This documentary about “Amazing Grace” contains many rarely-view images of the Admiral of the Cyber Sea. 

For those contributors who have shared their research findings with us in this issue of IJNH or written book reviews, we offer a heartfelt “Thank you!” That is, after all, what historians and those interested in naval and maritime matters do. Our next issue is due out in the spring. I invite all of you to contribute to that process. 

Charles C. Chadbourn, III, PhD, CAPT, USN, Ret.
Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Naval History
Professor of Strategy & Policy, U.S. Naval War College

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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Volume 17, No. 1: About the Authors

Jim Ransom U.S. Asiatic Fleet Submarines 1941-42: An Evaluation of Senior Leadership

CAPT Jim Ransom retired from the U.S. Navy following 30 years as a submariner. He served as Operations Officer for Commander Submarine Group 7, a successor to Commander Submarines, U.S. Asiatic Fleet. He commanded USS Miami (SSN 755) and served as Deputy for Operations and Chief of Staff at Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and also holds an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. He is an Adjunct Professor teaching Strategy and War in Mayport, Florida, for the College of Distance Education, U.S. Naval War College. This article is part of a project he is researching on U.S. Asiatic Fleet submarines in the first six months of World War II.

Henrikki Tikkanen Officers in the ‘Fishpond’ and their Roles in the Royal Navy of the Fisher Era, 1904-1919

Dr. Henrikki Tikkanen is a Professor of Business Administration at the Aalto University School of Business, Helsinki, Finland. His research interests include strategic marketing and management, leadership, and organizational history. He defended his history doctoral thesis in 2020 at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. This article is a part of that doctoral dissertation.

Joseph Moretz A Question of Faith, A Matter of Tactics: The Royal Navy and the Washington Agreement

Dr. Joseph Moretz is an independent researcher and author specializing in the modern Royal Navy. A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, Moretz subsequently studied at King’s College, London, and received an M.A. and Ph. D. in War Studies. A North American Society for Oceanic History member, Dr. Moretz is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. The author of three books, six chapters in edited volumes, and a frequent reviewer of historical monographs, he is presently writing a history of British amphibious operations for the period 1882-1916.

Aleksandr Gelfand Inside the Archives: United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Archives

Aleksandr Gelfand is an Associate Information Management Officer at the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section (ARMS). He holds a Master of Arts in Archives and Public History from New York University.

Marian Matyn Research Worth Diving Into: Significant Great Lakes Maritime Primary Source Collections at the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University

Marian Matyn earned a B.A. in History and an M.I.L.S. from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and an M.A. in history from Central Michigan University (CMU). At CMU she is archivist in the Clarke Historical Library (since 1996), an associate professor in the CMU Libraries, liaison librarian and an adjunct professor in the History Department. Marian presents and publishes on a variety of topics.


Tyler Kaus Grace Hopper: Computer Communicator (National History Day)

Tyler Kaus received the History of the Physical Sciences & Technology Prize at the 2022 National History Day competition in College Park, MD, for his documentary on Admiral Grace Hopper. On this project, Tyler enjoyed visiting online archives and learning the historical research process while developing his documentary skills. He graduated from Chadron (Nebraska) Senior High School and now attends Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, majoring in computer science, and specializing in robotics.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEW – Warship Builders: An Industrial History of U.S. Naval Shipbuilding, 1922-1945

Thomas Heinrich, Warship Builders: An Industrial History of U.S. Naval Shipbuilding, 1922-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. 340 pp.

Review by Sean Getway
Independent Scholar

Naval construction requires diligent effort to both research and amalgamate to convey the complexities and costs of building naval warships. Thomas Heinrich explores the dynamics of both the Interwar Period and World War Two regarding the planning and construction of warships. The traditional narrative of the United States production during World War Two is of the overwhelming manufacture by production lines of small arms, vehicles, and aircraft. However, the work argues warship construction during the war had more variety in production models, including small batch production and yard specialization, than has been included in previous works. Finally, the work covers the manpower and training of workers, the management changes, the public navy yards, and private contractor yards during the conflict.

Warship Builders breaks away from traditional arguments of how the US enabled victory in World War Two with private industry tooling up for war. From the very beginning, Heinrich argues warships required greater specialization, and the mass-production methods developed by Henry Ford and others during the interwar period never matched the commitments of warship construction. He lays out the existing conditions during the Great Depression and argues granting naval work to the largest private yards aiding in keeping them going during the economic downturn. In this discussion was the coverage of the Big Three private yards, Bethlehem Steel, New York Ship, and Newport News, and their cartel efforts to ensure their existence throughout the interwar years. From there, the work shifts to both the construction techniques, manpower training, and working conditions during the interwar period. With an examination of the recovery efforts of the Great Depression and the existing manpower layout, Heinrich lays out the details of naval construction before the start of World War Two. The growing orders of 1939 and 1940 started to strain the existing infrastructure and cause the US Navy to directly fund private yard improvements as interwar efforts by the private yards proved too little for the growing Fleet demand.

The core of the work is the analysis of the yards and their warship construction during the war.  Heinrich argues the complexity, and the smaller number of warships in various ship classes required multiple techniques. First, the Navy Yards are examined to demonstrate the government not only provided funding, oversight, and resource management, they directly contributed to war material production. Several of the Navy Yards were generalist yards that accomplished repair and construction of various classes and types of ships. Others, primarily on the West Coast, specialized in ship repair and modernization due to the Pacific Theater demands. The private yards were more specialized overall, yet they were still reliant on government funding for yard improvement. The specialization, as encouraged via government policies, enabled yards to focus on only one type, if not one class, of warships at a time. Several yards built greenfield sites (new yards) that directly relied on government funding for the construction of the facilities in addition to the actual ships. Highlighted at the end is the commonality between the majority of aircraft manufacturers with shipbuilding yards during World War Two, utilization of small patch production, temporary design halts only, and subcontracting out specialized items vice the Ford style of vertical integration.

Warship Builders is a highly organized and well-argued work. The details of private-public yard interactions along with government actions to manage material flow to all production facilities gives readers a fresh view and more nuanced interpretation of US wartime production. Further, the book lays out the most holistic approach to naval warship procurement in the United States during World War Two. It addresses all aspects of construction, from facilities and labor to government management and funding. Throughout the work, Heinrich consistently compares the US efforts with those of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. These highlight how the other major naval powers adapted to wartime conditions in their naval procurement as well as the relative scope of success in meeting the demand vice the realities of construction capabilities. For the general reader, this is an excellent look at the details of building naval warships with several case studies of warship classes surveyed. For the historian, this work excellently ties in new scholarship that has come out in recent years addressing US wartime production and adding greater detail and breaking the traditional narratives of vertically integrated factories being the main driver in World War Two production. This work is an essential work to understand both new research on World War Two production as well as the dynamics of the growth of the US Navy leading up to and during World War Two.

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 

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