Rakish, occasionally reckless, always recognizable, and a fighter in the tradition of Lord Nelson, Admiral David Beatty became the most well known figure of the Royal Navy in later World War One and afterwards.
Admiral David Beatty was keenly aware of the value of public relations however often he decried the popular press. He complained in letters to his wife and friends about that damn fellow Filson who is here….(that is, aboard his then flagship, HMS Lion). He was referring to Filson Young who was a journalist and war correspondent who wasn’t important but knew a lot of important people and managed to get himself into all sorts of places. He talked himself into being commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-Lieutenant and had himself assigned to HMS Lion with the express task of writing about Admiral David Beatty.
This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds since Young had known Beatty for several years and hero worshiped him. Beatty theoretically found all this annoying mind you, he hardly wanted some hero worshiping journalist like Filson Young around. Except he did and he liked Filson so he invited Filson Young to become part of personal staff mess over which Beatty presided like a king. So as much as he complained, he was usually available to talk to Filson who was aboard HMS Lion during the Battle of the Dogger Bank. In the early twenties he wrote an impressive book still worth reading today: With the Battlecruisers.
Admiral Beatty, later Admiral of the Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, later First Sea Lord and elevated to the peerage as Earl Beatty of the North Sea, was looked on by the public as the ideal of a true Royal Navy officer with the ‘Nelson touch.’ Handsome, controversial (but not too controversial), always wearing his naval cap with his trademark “Beatty tilt,” he was instantly recognizable. Beatty was a handsome man and a warrior. Women were strongly attracted to him and he was strongly attracted back. His private life was considered scandalous (which it sort of was) which only made him more interesting.
Battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable explodes at Jutland on 31 May 1916. Only two sailors out of a ship’s company of 1,019 survived.
“In the distance the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable sinking after being struck by shells from the German battlecruiser Von Der Tann first in “X” magazine and then once she had limped out of the line she was hit by another salvo on the foredeck, the resulting explosion then destroying her. All but two of Indefatigable’s crew of 1,119 were killed in the blast.”(Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Three of Admiral David Beatty’s battlecruisers— HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary, and HMS Indefatigable —were hit in vulnerable areas not protected by sufficient armour, by German shells during the battle of Jutland and literally exploded. Only a handful of officers and ratings from the three ships survived. Beatty’s own flagship, HMS Lion, was hit repeatedly by German shells which did significant damage.
HMS Lion on the left with waterspouts from enemy shells surrounding her. To the right, battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary explodes after German shells penetrated one of her powder magazines.
Beatty and HMS Lion had been pounded by the German navy before in the Battle of the Dogger Bank when German ships temporarily put HMS Lion out of action. Fortunately, since the battle was in the North Sea, HMS Lion did not have to steam far to reach port once the engines were brought back online. Nonetheless, after this experience and Jutland, Beatty had been in more action exposed to death and danger on an open navigating bridge than any other British admiral.
battlecruiser HMS Lion at sea (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The battlecruiser, a fast, lightly armoured but carrying heavy guns, was the brainchild of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky Fisher, First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 (that is, the professional head of the Royal Navy) who subsequently served disastrously in the same position from 1914 to 1915.
“Their speed will be their protection,” was Fishers’s unrelenting slogan: a dictum now as flawed as the refusal of combat with a nominal equal was unthinkable.”
Thus writes the brilliant naval historian, Professor Andrew Gordon, of the battlecruiser concept, in his magisterial work: The Rules of the Game—Jutland and British Naval Command.
HMS Dreadnought, circa 1906. The booms lashed to the side of the ship were designed to hold anti-torpedo netting. (US Navy Archives)
Fisher was a brilliant and far-sighted naval officer who in his first term from 1904 to 1910, was responsible for the modernization of the Royal Navy including the construction of the first modern battleship, HMS Dreadnought. Upon commissioning in 1906, the revolutionary design of the ship immediately rendered obsolete all other battleships in the world including all the pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy.
Fisher’s second major brainchild was the battlecruiser. He forced this design through a skeptical Admiralty only to see his design proven disastrous at Jutland on 31 May 1916.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Richard Beatty, PC, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. (Privy Counsellor, Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Order of Merit, Grand Cross of the Victorian Order, Distinguished Service Order) Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. From the Collection: THE ROYAL NAVY IN THE HOME WATERS, 1914-1918
During that battle, the Admiral Commanding Battle Cruisers, David Beatty, was more than startled when the battlecruisers around him started exploding. After the second of his battlecruisers exploded, Beatty turned to his flag captain on HMS Lion and said, “something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today.” And there was.
You can read book after book on the Battle of Jutland but it was Beatty who found and pinned the German High Seas fleet and led them toward what should have been its destruction by the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe. In doing so, Beatty was in action with his battlecruiser squadron far longer than the heavy battleships of the Grand Fleet.
The battlecruisers were not designed to fight it out with battleships but this is what happened in any event. Beatty has been criticized for being overly aggressive but that is specious. The culture of the Royal Navy was once the enemy was sighted, you went at them. It was the responsibility of the heavier ships to come up in support as fast as they could. In this Jellicoe failed.
But the biggest failure was that of the battlecruiser design and concept. It was a disaster. Unfortunately, after scrapping enough ships to meet their obligations under the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty, the Royal Navy was left with three of the newer battlecruisers: HMS Hood, HMS Repulse, and HMS Renown. Of these three, only the Renown was taken out of service and rebuilt with all of her major flaws corrected including thickening the armour over her magazines. While the other two were taken out of service for refits, neither spent two years in the dry dock being completely rebuilt and re-engined as did the Renown.
HMS Hood at sea. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The result wasn’t surprising. HMS Hood became a victim of plunging fire from the Bismarck. A shell went through the three inches of steel which formed the armoured deck over the aft powder magazine. It ignited the magazine and the ship blew up and sank in less than two minutes.
HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and a symbol of the might of the British Empire. Since the Hood spent so much time on “goodwill” tours throughout the world showing the flag, she was the most well known warship in the world. That she simply blew up was a shock to the British public and people throughout the world. (Only three men out of 1600 survived).
In a disastrous nightmare, HMS Repulse accompanied the KGV class battleship Prince of Wales, to Singapore and was sunk by the Japanese in the early days of the Pacific campaign.
This left only HMS Renown which for many months served as Admiral James Somerville’s flagship while he commanded the famous Force H from Gibraltar. (The ‘H’ doesn’t stand for anything). HMS Renown survived the war because she survived the bombs and the shells which hit her whereas the Hood and the Repulse did not. A sad story of a class of ships which should have been taken out of service entirely once their vulnerability at Jutland became clear.