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The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, by Andrew Gordon

Annapolis: aval Institute Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 708. Illus., maps, diagr., appends., notes, biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 1591143365.

The “Ifs” and the “Whys” of Jutland

There is a substantial minority of the human race that lies awake every night repeating the words “Should Jellicoe – at 7:23 PM off Jutland on May 31, 1916 – have turned away? Or turned TOWARD the German battle fleet?” For those of you who do not belong to this suffering elite, let us explain that the issue is Jellicoe’s turn away from a German torpedo attack while he had the German battleships under his guns at Jutland, saving his own battleships from losses, but causing him to lose contact in the dusk and mist, allowing the High Seas Fleet to escape. Jellicoe might have suffered dramatic losses to his own battleships from those torpedoes, and “lost the War in an afternoon” as Churchill put it. Or he might not; perhaps surface ship torpedoes were an overrated weapon, and he would have crushed the Germans under his guns in a decisive victory, as expected of the Royal Navy – which still wasn’t necessary to win the war. The blockade did that, although it took two more years.

Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game, will put no rest to these tortured souls; but it will bring them a LOT of new material to enliven their insomniac hours. This book, originally issued in Britain in the 1990s and long out of print, is (mostly) an in-depth analysis of the Battle of Jutland from the viewpoint of command – both in terms of the reasons why the British commanders – Jellicoe, Beatty, Evan-Thomas – made the decisions they did, but also in terms of their ability to communicate these decisions to their subordinates, and control the actions of their fleet or squadron. The author has a vast knowledge of the experiences and personalities of these admirals and the culture of the Royal Navy, and Gordon’s descriptions of their choices in battle and interpretations of their thought processes are very convincing. Grounded on an intimate knowledge of their lives, careers, and correspondence, it places the reader vividly and apparently effortlessly inside the minds of these men as they made their decisions – and possibly crucial mistakes – during the battle. In the end, Gordon comes down strongly on the side that Jellicoe let a decisive victory slip through his fingers; but agree with it or not, this book is a tremendous piece of fine, thought-provoking writing.

The Rules of the Game begins with the opening of the battle, the meeting of Beatty’s and Hipper’s battlecruisers at 2:20 PM, and the first two command errors. One is Beatty’s failure to keep the 5th Battle Squadron in close support of his battlecruisers; Gordon suggests this could have prevented his loss of two of his battlecruisers and cost Hipper several of his own. Second is Evan-Thomas’ failure to follow Beatty’s turn away until he received a signaled order, bringing the 5th BS under the fire of the High Seas Fleet’s battleships and risking their disastrous loss. Gordon goes on to develop his basic thesis of two command styles: Beatty’s encouragement of initiative, leading to aggressive, timely decisions AND impulsive mistakes, versus Jellicoe’s desire to keep control of his forces, leading to missed opportunities, while and avoiding disastrous mistakes. And which was right? Obviously neither one absolutely, but it was Jellicoe’s emphasis on control which finally determined the outcome of the battle – and allowed the High Seas Fleet to escape.

Yet Jellicoe faced a unique problem in commanding the largest battleship fleet ever assembled, possessing numerous technological advances that had never before been tried in action, against an enemy fleet intentionally designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of the superior British fleet in the hope of stealing its victory. And if his first problem was how to maneuver this unprecedentedly large fleet tactically, his second problem was how to keep control of it while doing so. Communications in the Grand Fleet were appallingly fallible. Morse radio was very cumbersome, requiring time for encoding and transmission messages; too slow for giving maneuvering orders to ships in company. Doctrine and discipline for its use were in their infancy, and full of holes. Gordon notes the failures of wireless throughout the battle in thorough detail: Jellicoe received much false information, and never received much that was true. Some ships failed to report crucial sightings of the enemy, others filled the airwaves with pointless chatter. Some broke radio silence unnecessarily, others clung to it long after the need had passed. Gordon’s analysis of these problems is quite good, but radio takes second place for him to problems with visual signaling, which remained the primary means of communication during Jutland.

Visual signaling was not only inherently fallible in mist, smoke, dusk, and distance, but it was encumbered at Jutland by a very complex signal book of coded flag hoists. The retention of this obsolete system, one which was nearly unworkable under the pressure of battle, is the subject of a 250-page digression at the center of the book, “The Underlying Reason Why. Gordon explores in depth the roots of the culture of the Royal Navy in the Victorian period (his book’s title is a reference to the “playing fields of Eton”), and the failure of a major, serious effort to reform signaling. The need for a simple, flexible, practical system for controlling a maneuvering fleet in action was recognized by a number of important leaders, such as Sir George Tryon, who worked out and tested a system as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. However, signals reform was discredited by his own error that caused his death and the sinking of his flagship Victoria after a collision with the Camperdown on June 22, 1893 – an event well known to many, many readers through Richard Hough’s classic Admirals in Collision” (1959). The admirals at Jutland were young men during this controversy; Jellicoe was aboard the Victoria when she sank.

Fallible communications impacted the battle most in the next phase, the clash of battle fleets after 6 PM, when Jellicoe wrestled to deploy his gigantic fleet and trap Scheer, who struggled desperately to escape. Perhaps the worst time for the British was the confused night action that followed, when critical reports of sightings of the German battleships never reached Jellicoe – or were never made. But as for that choice at 7:23, Gordon feels that turning toward the Germans by divisions would have minimized the torpedo danger. But would it have been worth the risk of defeat, putting Britain suddenly at the total mercy of Germany? A crushing British victory and the appalling loss to Germany of the irreplaceable men and materiel constituting the High Seas’ Fleet, might have allowed close blockade of the German coast, possibly preventing the German U-boat campaign, possibly permitting a landing on the Belgian coast, possibly breaking the deadlock on the Western Front, possibly saving Russia from collapse? Gordon doesn’t try to answer that; he contents himself with quoting Jellicoe’s expressions of disappointment and self-doubt after the battle. And it should be noted that Jon Sumida, in an article in the Summer 2007 Naval War College Review, argues that Jellicoe had carefully studied the question of the proper range to engage since he was appointed Director of Naval Ordnance in 1905, and knew exactly what he was doing.

This is History at its very best: properly raising the questions that we most want to have answered, and properly refusing to give a simple answer. Gordon ends with a “Perspective” thoroughly analyzing British problems and applying this to more recent experiences, such as during WWII, Suez, the Cold War, or to Sandy Woodward’s command problems during the Falklands War. And by the way, Admiral Woodward wrote the foreword to this book. For all its learning – technical, historical, cultural – this book is always clear, vivid, and insightful. In short, great reading.

 

Note: The Rules of the Game is also available as an e-pub

 

Our Reviewer: Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the Towed Sonar Array, and the history of Lighter-than-Air. He has contributed book reviews to The Naval Historical Foundation (navyhistory.org) and The International Journal of Naval History (ijnhonline.org).

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Reviewer: Robert P. Largess   


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