Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and the Prime Minister on the deck of the SS Queen Mary. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Early in his tenure as First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound wrote to a close friend in the navy and said, “why have Commanders-in-Chiefs and do their work for them? If they are not capable of doing it they must make way for someone who can.” 1
Unique amongst the respective British service commands, the Admiralty had command, organizational and administrative responsibilities of a standard service ministry but also had operational control over the fleets.
Unfortunately, Dudley Pound didn’t take his own advice during the war since he often went over the heads of his C-in-Cs and gave orders to formations under their command.
During the disastrous campaign in Norway beginning in early April 1940, Pound went over the head of both the senior Royal Navy officer on the scene (Admiral Jock Whitworth) as well over the head Whitworth’s C.O., the Commander in Chief, Home Fleet. Pound even sent orders to individual ships. This caused immense confusion as you might imagine.
While many of the orders sent to RN ships fighting in the Norwegian campaign by Dudley Pound were thought to have originated with then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, many other times during the war Pound needed no prodding from Churchill to interfere in fleet dispositions during action with the enemy.
This could cause serious problems and occasionally disaster such as the infamous scattering order issue to convoy PQ17.
As an aside, the Chief of Naval Operations in the US, has no operational authority over US naval ships. He, or she, is responsible for everything concerning the navy but he doesn’t exercise command over fleets or ships. This has always been the case in the modern history of the US Navy.
In World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt picked Admiral Ernest King out of a dead-end post which Admirals took a few years before retirement and made him Chief of Naval Operations. However, this gave King little power over the dispositions of the actual naval ships themselves since those were in fleets or other units under the authority of Commander in Chief US Fleet. This title had the unfortunate acronym of CINCUS.
After a spell, this did not suit Roosevelt who wanted one person in charge so he elevated King to the position of Commander in Chief US Fleet while allowing him to also keep the office of Chief of Naval Operations. This gave King immense authority over the entire US Navy. (And he sometimes went over the heads of his commanders such as Nimitz, not to change any of their fleet dispositions but to fire some of their subordinates).
Upon assuming the position of Commander in Chief, US Fleet, Admiral King immediately changed the acronym to COMINCH. King is the only man ever to have held the position of Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief US Fleet simultaneously.
1 Roskill, Stephen “The War at Sea”