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Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe 1859-1935

Admiral Jellicoe on board his flagship HMS Iron Duke. Photogarph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London
Admiral John Jellicoe

Admiral John Jellicoe was one of the Royal Navy's most senior admirals during the First World War. He commanded the Grand Fleet from 1914-1916 and then served as First Sea Lord. While in command of the Grand Fleet he was, as Winston Churchill correctly observed 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'.

Joining the navy in 1872, Jellicoe first fought ashore in the Egyptian war of 1882. He led the Naval Brigade during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900 where he was shot, the bullet remaining in his lung for the rest of his life.

Jellicoe was serving aboard the Mediterranean Fleet flagship HMS Victoria in 1893 when she was rammed and sunk by HMS Camperdown, taking with her 358 crew among them Admiral Sir George Tyron.

An gunnery expert, Jellicoe came into contact with the future Admiral John Fisher in the 1880s and became one of Fisher's protegés, a member of the so-called 'Fishpond'. During Fisher's time as First Sea Lord, Jellicoe was one of his key allies in pushing forward the plans for an all-big-gun navy as first Director of Ordnance between 1905-1907 and then Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy from 1908-1910.

Promoted to second in command of the Grand Fleet in 1911 and then Second Sea Lord, Jellicoe was Fisher's preferred choice to take command in the event of war. On 4 August 1914, the day war broke out, Jellicoe replaced Sir George Callaghan as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet. Not since Howard of Effingham in 1588 had one British admiral commanded the entire fleet in wartime and borne such responsibility.

The public expected Jellicoe to bring the German High Seas Fleet to battle and destroy it in another Battle of Trafalgar . However, Jellicoe did not have an overwhelming numerical superiority in 1914 and was unwilling to risk his fleet unnecessarily. He was also aware of the growing threat posed by submarines and torpedoes. In any case the Royal Navy's main tasks during the war were to supply British armies in France and to conduct an economic blockade of Germany.

Jellicoe's opportunity came at the Battle of Jutland on the afternoon of 31 May 1916, the only occasion that the Grand Fleet and High Seas Fleet met in battle. Twice Jellicoe's line of 24 battleships crossed in front of the enemy, when all British guns could fire but only the front guns of the German ships could reply. This was a considerable tactical achievement by Jellicoe. On the second occasion, the Germans mounted a torpedo attack and as ordered to do in such an event the British fleet turned away. Jellicoe did not make a serious attempt to intercept the enemy that night and the Germans escaped.

After the battle Jellicoe was criticised for not pursuing the Germans more vigorously but the actions of the fleet were in accordance with the tactical doctrine which Jellicoe had agreed with the Admiralty. Jellicoe's battle orders ensured centralized control of the fleet and once in place it was difficult to see Jutland coming to a different conclusion.

At the end of 1916 Jellicoe became First Sea Lord as the government wished bring fresh ideas into a lethargic Admiralty. His place in charge of the Grand Fleet was taken by Admiral Sir David Beatty. Jellicoe opposed the use of the convoy system to deal with the U-boat threat in the spring of 1917, but was responsible for its successful introduction after an intervention by Prime Minister Lloyd George. However, Jellicoe was exhausted after years in command of the Grand Fleet and on Christmas Eve 1917 he was abruptly dismissed by Eric Geddes, the new First Lord of the Admiralty. After the war Jellicoe served as the Governor General of New Zealand between 1920-1924.

Further reading:

  • A. Gordon, The Rules of the Game (London, 1996)