- Admirals Harper and Bacon
1. ‘The Truth about Jutland’, by Rear Admiral JET Harper, 1927 (90pp) and
2. ‘The Jutland Scandal’ by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, 1933 (145pp).
Harper, then a Captain, was tasked in 1919 by the then First Sea Lord, Wemyss (Jellicoe’s immediate successor) to produce a narrative digest of the facts of Jutland using the official paperwork on the subject without any expressions of opinion and using no oral sources. He completed this difficult task in about a year and included track charts, later suppressed, of the successive events. When Beatty then took over as 1SL Harper was told to make certain alterations, regardless of the fact that he had carefully prepared an impartial relation of facts. This he eventually refused unless he was given official written instructions. The Harper ‘Record’ (not a ‘Report’) ran to a third amended version before it was shelved in spite of repeated assurances to Parliament that it was about to be published (over two dozen statements to Parliament in the eight years following the war are identified here by Harper). A copy of the Record, albeit the third, ‘adjusted’ version, was however made available to Sir Julian Corbett and Harper refers the reader to Corbett’s Official History (volume III) for a full and factual account of the battle.
What Harper eventually published in 1927 was based on that record, but is not that document - it is a succinct account of the actual engagement with careful explanations as to why things happened, and includes his contemporary, detailed technical analysis of threats and tactics. Few items are missing except the divergence from ammunition handling rules and the removal of safety features in the battle-cruisers, probably because they never appeared in the official records available to Harper in 1919. What is added is a seamanlike analysis of stationing and manoeuvre, in the context of what information was actually available to Jellicoe in the prevailing circumstances of very low visibility and abysmal want of reporting by his subordinates, including Beatty.
The result was a comprehensive, detailed rebuttal of all criticisms of Jellicoe emanating from Beatty’s supporters - in one case clearly using privileged information - that had accumulated post-war. It also makes clear that Beatty’s primary engagement on the Run South resulted in operational defeat of the Battle Cruiser Squadron by an inferior force, not least because Beatty managed his supporting 5th Battle Squadron (four 15”-gunned Queen Elizabeth class fast battleships) in such a way as to keep them initially out of the action, well astern and on his disengaged side. As Harper put it, “It is an indisputable fact that, in the first phase of this battle, a British squadron, greatly superior in numbers and gun-power, not only failed to defeat a weaker enemy who made no effort to avoid action, but, in the space of 50 minutes suffered what can only be described as a partial defeat.” Harper means, but in 1927 could not say, that Beatty intended to bag all the glory for himself and this spectacularly backfired at a cost of thousands of lives.
Harper goes on to prove that as far as tit-for tat scoring goes, the engagement between the main battleship fleets was a definite win for Jellicoe.
Churchill’s revealed diversions from the truth, in his major oeuvre ‘The World Crisis’, and his failure to address the facts objectively, are a warning to all readers of his historical works to take what they read with a large pinch of salt. In this context we are reminded that it was Churchill who had Beatty promoted over several others to command the BCS, in Churchill’s own words ‘against technical advice’ (the detail is verbatim in Bacon) and in Churchill’s history his protégé could not be seen to fail.
Harper endorses Bacon’s original account to which I now turn.
What we have here is the 5th (1933) edition of Bacon’s work which originally appeared on 1925. The trigger for Bacon was a sensationalised and totally wrong-headed article in the Sunday Express by a journalist called Filson Young which led to a spate of misleading material elsewhere in the Press. We are told that this 5th edition is a toned-down version of the original - that must have been peppery indeed.
We start with very clear explanations of the threats to, and how to manoeuvre a fleet of battleships, and the effects of weather and visibility thereon. This in itself is a window on a Navy that could still form subdivisions in column, sub divisional guides bearing abeam to starboard and so forth - but Bacon explains all this with such admirable clarity that even a soldier could understand what he is saying. It is a valuable primer for us on the management of a fleet before radar and organic naval airpower were involved.
Following a narrative of the main points of the action, including a clear exposition of Beatty’s failure, following his tactical defeat by Hipper, to carry out the scouting and reporting tasks for which his ships had specifically been built, Bacon goes on convincingly to expose as delusory the comments of various ignorant landlubbers, to rubbish Dewar’s tendentious ‘Narrative’ and then to counter Filson Young point by point with surgical accuracy. The rightness of Jellicoe’s decision making is incontrovertibly explained.
This 5th edition then included a new chapter demolishing Churchill’s distorted account in ‘The World Crisis’, he gripped by a moronic false analogy with land fighting as if the North Sea ought to have been Omdurman-sur-Mer. Churchill’s shameful and deceitful traducing of Evan-Thomas, 5th Battle Squadron commander, is given the drubbing it deserves and the lies in Churchill’s narrative are exposed for what they are.
Bacon also adds an appendix explaining why it was Beatty’s fault that the German battle-cruisers escaped at the Dogger Bank battle and not that of his second in command who was unfairly blamed.
These two books together form an excellent primer on Jutland-era risks and tactics, how a battle fleet was fought, and on the battle itself and what could have been done better, particularly if the battle-cruisers had been commanded by a more experienced and professional admiral. Together they particularly explain the niceties of seamanship that have escaped the understanding of so many commentators. As to the principals, in a nutshell Jellicoe comes out as a gentleman but Beatty as a politician.
There are seventeen well-selected black and white plates, including modern ones of the last participant afloat, the light cruiser HMS Caroline which can be seen in Belfast. As I write the rotting keel of one of the German destroyers that fought in the action is reported emerged from the mud in Portsmouth Harbour.