Sub- Lieutenant to Admiral
The 1890’s were a very good time to start a naval career; the small mid-Victorian navy was beginning to expand creating an insatiable demand for junior officers. This was fortunate, as David continued to deliver distinctly ordinary academic results in all his training courses and his career could have sunk without trace. By all accounts he was perfectly capable of doing better but he appeared to lack interest and application. A combination of good fortune, a charismatic personality, and the patronage of powerful people, personal bravery and decisive and confident leadership propelled David through the ranks.
After three years at sea with the Alexandra, Sub-Lieutenant Beatty undertook further training with the wooden steam corvette Ruby, at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and on board HMS Excellence.
In 1892 he joined the royal yacht Victoria and Albert for its summer cruise and was promoted to lieutenant. He had another spell on the Ruby in the West Indies and South Atlantic where he developed his seamanship and man-management skills and in 1893 he served on the battleship Camperdown, transferring to the Trafalgar in 1895.
On the Trafalgar David rejoined Commander Stanley Colville who was the ship’s executive officer. Colville had been a role model for David whilst on the Alexandra and Colville had formed a high opinion of David’s potential. It is said that Colville’s patronage made David’s career.In 1896 an Anglo-Egyptian expedition under General Sir Herbert Kitchener began the re-conquest of the Sudan from the Islamic Dervish regime. Kitchener’s army depended upon river gunboats for transport and fire support and Colville was selected to command, taking David with him as his second in command. Early in the campaign Colville was seriously wounded leaving David to take command. David excelled and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Kitchener specifically requested his return for the 1897 campaign.
This campaign did not start well, but David led his men with a dash and daring that would characterise his leadership for the rest of his life. The expedition was ultimately successful and Kitchener’s final dispatch saw David specially promoted to commander on 15th November 1898. He was 27 and this promotion moved him six years ahead of his contemporaries in the race for the rank of admiral. After Sudan, David along with the other young heroes of the campaign including Winston Churchill, became public property. The shared experience of the Sudan campaign created an enduring bond between David and Churchill that later proved useful to David’s career.In 1899 Stanley Colville was Captain of the battleship Barfleur, a flagship on the China station and he chose David to be the ship’s executive officer. The first year of his tour of duty was uneventful, but unrest against foreigners was growing in China and by the summer of 1900 the large scale anti-western rebellion led by the “Boxers” had reached Beijing. Western residents took refuge in the Legation Quarter and Admiral Seymour led an international relief effort of two thousand soldiers, sailors and marines. David landed with 150 men from the Barfleur and engaged in fierce fighting with the well-armed Boxers; David was severely wounded in the left arm and wrist but carried on regardless and once again his bravery and heroics impressed the high command. In November 1900 David, along with three other commanders, was specially promoted to captain for his gallantry and leadership.
A second battlefield promotion was unusual, especially so soon after the first, but David had earned it. When the chance came he took command like an assured veteran. He was 29 and the normal age for promotion to captain was 42.
By the time David was declared fit again for sea duty by the medical board he was married to Ethel and the financial independence Ethel’s millions gave him allowed him to be choosy about his postings. Needless to say, this did not endear him to the high command or indeed his fellow officers. When David was threatened with disciplinary action following the straining of his ship’s engines, Ethel is reputed to have commented “What? Court-martial my David? I’ll buy them a new ship.“
Over the next nine years David took command of HMS Juno, then Arrogant, Suffolk and Queen and for two years was naval adviser to the Army Council. On 1st January 1910 David was promoted to rear admiral. A special Order in Council was required as he lacked sufficient sea time. However, David was a good seaman, had commanded four ships and had nothing left to prove. At 38 he was the youngest admiral since Nelson.