David Beatty – Commanding the Grand Fleet to Retirement


David Beatty
Commanding the Grand Fleet to Retirement

IMG_2284Despite their claims of victory, the German navy and high command accepted that Jutland had been a failure and rapidly switched to unrestricted submarine warfare against all merchant ships, allied and neutral. In November 1916 Admiral Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord, largely to deal with this threat.IMG_2287

As the only other admiral with a high public profile David was specially promoted to Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet. This was a massive promotion for him but he set about motivating and invigorating 35,000 men to convince them that the next time they met the German fleet they would get their victory. Indeed, maintaining the morale of the Grand Fleet ranks amongst David’s greatest achievements.

Jellicoe had issued 200 pages of mandatory Grand Fleet Battle Orders and David quickly replaced these with two pages of optional “Instructions” emphasising the need for subordinates to use their initiative.  This echoed the draft standing orders he had issued to the Battlecruiser Fleet which stated “…as a rule instructions will be of a very general character so as to avoid interfering with the judgement and initiative of captains…The admiral will rely on captains to use all the information at their disposal to grasp the situation quickly and anticipate his wishes, using their own discretion as to how to act in unforeseen circumstances….”

 When Germany accepted an armistice in November 1918, David insisted that the entire High Seas Fleet must surrender unconditionally and on 21st November the German fleet arrived in the Firth of Forth between two lines of British warships. He then issued the following unauthorised signal “the German Flag will be hauled down at sunset and will not be raised again without permission”. This was not a lawful command as the fleet remained the property of the German Government but nevertheless David enforced it. Three days later his old flagship HMS Lion escorted the Germans to Scapa Flow to await the outcome of peace negotiations.

img010When The First World War ended David was specially promoted to Admiral of the Fleet on 3rd April 1919, at 46yrs. the youngest ever. He raised his flag on HMS Queen Elizabeth and lowered it on 7th April. This flag now hangs in St Michael and All Angels Church, Brooksby. On 19th July 1919 he led the naval contingent of the victory parade. David was still under 50 and his dealings with the King, politicians, allies and soldiers during the war years had marked him out as a complete naval statesman. He was the obvious choice for the next First Sea Lord and was appointed on 1st November 1919. Winston Churchill had suggested delaying the appointment until stringent post war reductions in the navy could be imposed because “once Beatty is enthroned he will be in a position to champion the particularist interests of the Admiralty to an extent which would become quite impossible…”. Churchill was proved right. David proved invaluable to the navy by protecting the defence budget from the threat of cuts, he clashed repeatedly with politicians over budgets and ship building programmes or more specifically the lack of them. As he explained to Ethel in a letter “You would not have me go down in history as the 1st Sea Lord of the day who made so bad a struggle that our rulers gave up the heritage of Command of the Sea which we have held for over 300 years”

Beatty's telescope

Beatty’s telescope

David held the post of First Sea Lord for eight years, longer than anyone else in the 20th century. During his term of office he was involved in negotiating the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922; the Naval Staff College was formed at Greenwich and he was a keen supporter of the Chiefs of Staffs Committee.


David retired from the Admiralty in July 1927. In a navy filled with officers who did as they were told he was different, he brought an original and powerful mind to bear on the matter of command and he looked for something more than order and regulation. He emphasised the object, not the method and stressed the need for initiative. David’s time as First Sea Lord is said to have done much to ensure the Royal Navy’s combat readiness in 1939, but many feel that his main achievement was to maintain the morale of the navy at a time of serious defence cuts.img012