John R. Jellicoe, 1859-1935, British Admiral

Early Career
First World War - The Grand Fleet
First World War - First Sea Lord
Post War

Early Career

Admiral John Jellicoe was the commander of the British Grand Fleet during the first two years of the First World War. In that role he commanded the fleet at the battle of Jutland, the only fleet battle of the entire war.

Jellicoe’s father was a captain in the Merchant Marine. In the mid-Victorian navy this was seen as something of a disadvantage, and despite coming from a family that had provided seven naval officers, amongst them Admiral Sir Philip Patton, Jellicoe would not be able to rely on “influence” to gain him promotion. Instead his rapid rise would be based on success in examinations and his own ability.

He entered the Cadet training ship HMS Britannia in 1827, and in 1874 graduated second out of 39 cadets, with first class certificates in every subject. That achievement gained him an immediate appointment as a midshipman in the wooden sailing frigate HMS Newcastle. Like many senior naval officers of 1914, Jellicoe found himself commanding a very different navy to the one he had grown up in. The Newcastle had auxiliary steam engines to support her sails, but those sails were her main source of propulsion. Jellicoe spent two and a half year on the Newcastle, visiting Gibraltar, Rio, the Falklands, the Cape of Good Hope, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Bombay, Singapore, Hong-Kong, Nagasaki and Mauritius before returning to Britain.

In 1877 he was posted to the battleship Agincourt, the flagship of the channel squadron. She was soon sent to Turkey, where Britain was becoming involved in the Russian-Turkish War. The fleet forced the passage of the Dardanelles, and operated in the Sea of Marmora. Jellicoe gained some experience of commanding smaller vessels during this period.

Formal photo of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe
Formal photo of
Sir John Jellicoe

At the same time as he was busy in the Dardanelles, Jellicoe was studying for the sub-lieutenant examination, passing third out of 103 candidates. He returned to Britain to attend the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the specialist gunnery and torpedo schools at Portsmouth. He gained first class certificates in all three courses, and should have gained an immediate promotion to lieutenant. This promotion was delayed until September 1880, and in the six month gap he served as a signal officer on the Alexandra, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. Once his promotion to lieutenant was confirmed, he returned to the Agincourt. By this time he had decided to specialise as a gunnery officer, but he needed more time at sea before he could join the relevant course ashore. This second period on the Agincourt saw Jellicoe serve on shore during a nationalist revolt in Egypt.

In the summer of 1882 Jellicoe left the Agincourt to attend the Royal Naval College. Over the next two years he won a theoretical prize at Greenwich and once against gained first class certificates in gunnery and torpedo at Portsmouth. This gained him a promotion to gunnery-lieutenant and an appointment to the staff of the gunnery school (1884).

This was crucial for his later career. The commander of that school was Captain John Fisher. In the year that the two men worked together at the gunnery school, Fisher was greatly impressed with Jellicoe, and when Fisher was appointed chief-of-staff to Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, he took Jellicoe with him as his own staff-officer (1885).

Hornby’s fleet was being assembled for a cruise in the Baltic, intended to prevent Russia interfering in Afghanistan, a constant feature of the “Great Game” in central Asia. The result was a short cruise notable mostly for the first torpedo attack on a fleet.

After the Baltic cruiser, Jellicoe spent a short time on HMS Monarch, an obsolescent turret ship (September 1885-April 1886), followed by an equally short spell on the most modern battleship in the fleet, HMS Colossus (April-December 1886). 

In December 1886 Jellicoe returned to the gunnery school on HMS Excellent as an experimental officer. His main duties involved testing the guns of all new ships, but he was also involved in the introduction of new 4.7in and 6in quick firing guns. These became the main guns on most light cruisers and the anti-torpedo boat guns on battleships, reducing the danger posed by the torpedo, then seen as a real threat to the battle fleet.

In 1889 something of a national panic led to the passing of the Naval Defence Act. This funded the construction of ten battleships and forty-two cruisers. At this time Fisher was director of naval ordnance, and he asked for Jellicoe to assist him in the difficult task of providing enough modern guns for the new ships.

In June 1891 Jellicoe was promoted to commander, and the next year went back to sea, on the Sans Pareil, part of the Mediterranean Fleet. The following year he was transferred to the flagship of the fleet, HMS Victoria. This was an almost disastrous transfer, for on 22 June the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Sir George Tryon, botched a simple manoeuvre. On 22 June 1893, off Tripoli, while preparing to anchor, the Victoriawas rammed by HMS Camperdown, and sank with the lost of 358 men, amongst them the admiral. Jellicoe had been below decks sick at the time, and was fortunate to escape from the wreck (and from any of the blame).

After recovering from the experience, Jellicoewas appointed commander of HMS Ramillies, the new flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, under Admiral Sir Michael Culme-Seymour. This was another crucial period in Jellicoe’s career. Culme-Seymour had been carefully chosen because he favoured tight control from the centre rather than the more flexible but clearly dangerous methods of Tryon, who had preferred to issue simple orders and allow his juniors to work out the details. Culme-Seymour introduced a system of tight control from the flagship that Jellicoe would later use when in command of the Grand Fleet.

On 1 January 1897 Jellicoe was promoted to captain, and appointed to the ordnance committee. After a year in this post, he received his first postings as captain, as flag captain to Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, commander in chief of the China Station, on HMS Centurion. His arrival coincided with a period of crisis in China. In 1895 Japan had defeated China. Germany, Russian and Britain had all rushed in to take part of the spoils – Russian gained Port Arthur, German gained Kiaochow (better know as Tsingtao, after the main settlement) and Britain gained Wei-hai-wei.

This predatory behaviour helped to trigger the Boxer rising. The British ambassador at Peking telegraphed Seymour asked for assistance on 28 May 1900. Seymour responded by sending a 2,000 strong naval brigade towards Peking. Seymour took control of the expedition, with Jellicoe as his chief-of-staff. This tiny force was landed on 10 June, and soon ran into trouble. The Imperial Chinese army let it pass the forts at Taku, but then declared for the Boxers, and closed the railway line behind the naval brigade. On 19 June the brigade turned back. Two days later, while fighting his way through a Chinese village, Jellicoe suffered a serious bullet wound to his left lung. At first he was not expected to survive, but the expedition, and with it Jellicoe, was rescued by a second force that had captured the Taku forts. Jellicoe recovered from his wound, and remained with HMS Centurion until she was paid off in 1901.

His next post was at the Admiralty, as naval assistant to the third sea lord and controller of the Admiralty, Admiral Sir William May. This involved him with the construction of new ships. After a short time at sea in charge of the cruiser Drake (1903-1904), he was recalled to the Admiralty. Fisher was now first sea lord, and once again he called Jellicoe to his side, this time as director of naval ordnance (from February 1905).

This was always an important post, but in 1905 it was a crucial one, for the battleship Dreadnought was then being designed. The Committee on Designs first met on 3 January 1905. Jellicoe was appointed to this committee, although by the time he arrived most of the main decisions must have been made, for the committee made its report in late March. Jellicoe was more involved in the practical implementation of the switch to all-big-gun long range gunnery, emphasising battle practise. During the war the battleships of the Grand Fleet would demonstrate remarkably accurate shooting (in marked contrast to the battlecruisers). Jellicoe was also responsible to taking control of naval ordnance back from the War Office.

Another short interlude at sea followed. In February 1907 Jellicoe was promoted to rear-admiral, and in August was appointed second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet. His flagship was the suddenly obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship Albermarle. His period with the Atlantic Fleet allowed him to experience long range battle-practise, with targets now at a distance of five miles. It also gave him his first experience of fleet command, during a period when his commander-in-chief was absent.

In August 1908 Jellicoe returned to the admiralty as third sea lord and controller, only a year after serving as assistant to a prior incumbent. This put him in charge of naval construction at a very dangerous moment. The Dreadnought had made all earlier battleships obsolete, and in one blow destroyed Britain’s battleship advantage over Germany. He arrived in post two years into a Liberal government that was opposed to excessive naval construction. Instead, the government wanted to rely on Britain’s shipbuilding capacity to overhaul any German lead if an emergency arose. HMS Dreadnought had been built in just over a year. This was the quickest that a battleship was ever built. Considering the speed with which the First World War erupted this plan was never realistic, but as a gunnery expert, Jellicoe was able to successfully argue that the big guns required could not be built in a hurry. In the 1909-1910 naval programme eight battleships were funded.

During his time as third sea lord, twelve battleships (not all dreadnoughts) and 78 smaller ships were added to the fleet and the naval race with Germany virtually won. In December 1910 Jellicoe returned to sea, as vice-admiral commanding the Atlantic Fleet. His flagship was HMS Prince of Wales, a pre-dreadnought battleship launched in 1902. After a year that saw his fleet resuce the Princess Royal from the wreck of the steamship Delhi, Jellicoe was transferred to the Home Fleet, as second in command under Admiral Sir George Callaghan, and commander of the second division of dreadnoughts. His flagship was HMS Hercules, one of the newest dreadnoughts, laid down during his time as third sea lord.

Jellicoe’s time at sea revealed some potential flaws in his style of command. He was said to take too many duties on his own back, and to be unwilling to remove incompetent subordinates, even when he acknowledged their failings. He was also becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy his battle squadrons independently, relying on centralised controls to have the fleet act as one.

Jellicoe spent the last two years before the war as second sea lord, responsible of manning and discipline. This was perhaps not the ideal preparation for the man already seen as the wartime commander of the Grand Fleet, but it did see him play a part in the adoption of director fire and fire-control systems.

By 1914 Jellicoe was well aware of the dangers that would be faced by any battlefleet operating in the North Sea. Close to German bases the fleet would be threatened by U-boats, hemmed in by mines and under observation from Zeppelins. However, he was also aware that the real purpose of the Grand Fleet would be to prevent the Germans from breaking the British blockade of Germany. A crushing victory at sea would be welcome, but not essential.

First World War – the Grand Fleet

In July 1914 Jellicoe was sent back to sea as second-in-command of the Grand Fleet, with the expectation that he would replaced Admiral Callaghan when he retired in October. The First World War broke out two months too soon for this neat transition to take place, and on 4 August he was appointed as commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet. It could be argued that the change took place too soon, and that Callaghan should have remained in charge until October. He was certainly a more experienced admiral, well known in the fleet and popular, and Jellicoe made four attempts to turn down the promotion. This perhaps rather under-plays the importance of public opinion around the world – to replace the commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet two months into a world war, before any clash at sea, and during the period of the Race to the Sea, would not have been seen as a confident move.

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe,
commander of the Grand Fleet

The first two years of the war were a test of Jellicoe’s patience. The German High Seas Fleet made five sorties between August 1914 and the battle of Jutland, none of which came close to producing the longed for battle. Jellicoe put a great deal of effort into keeping the morale of his men high during the long days at Scapa, while waiting for the Germans to move.

The long-awaited battle finally came on 31 May-1 June 1916 at Jutland. This would be the most controversial episode of Jellicoe’s career. The battle came about because of the appointment of Admiral Reinhard Scheer as German commander-in-chief in early 1916. He was well aware that the High Seas Fleet was not achieving anything, and was determined to take the fight to the British. Accordingly, at the end of May he decided set a trap for the British, sending his battlecruisers out to sea, with the High Seas Fleet following behind. He hoped to catch a detached portion of the British fleet, and either lure them over a line of submarines or into the guns of the High Seas Fleet. The German fleet was to sail on 31 May.

British naval intelligence soon learnt of this plan. Encoded German radio communications were being read in London, and Jellicoe was able to get the Grand Fleet to sea on 30 May. His own plan was similar to Scheer’s. The battlecruisers under Admiral David Beatty would find the German ships. If the German squadron was weaker than the British, then Beatty would engage them himself, if not he was to lure them towards Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet. The one flaw in this British intelligence victory was that no mention was made of the main High Seas Fleet. Jellicoe and Beatty would only find out that the German battleships were at sea when they came into contact on 31 May.

As Jellicoe left Scapa Flow, he was not expecting a fight on the following day. Accordingly, he steamed south at a speed designed to make sure that his destroyers would have enough fuel for them to stay with the fleet for two days after they reached the expected area of battle. Meanwhile, Beatty was steaming towards a disastrous clash with the German battlecruisers. Two of Beatty’s battlecruisers were destroyed during this first phase of the battle, which ended when Scheer and the High Seas Fleet appeared. Beatty turned north and ran north towards Jellicoe, with the High Seas Fleet in chase.

It would soon be Scheer’s turn to be surprised. He too had no reason to believe that the enemy battlefleet was at sea. At 6.14 pm on 31 May, the German battleships were sighted from Jellicoe’s fleet, and the long awaited clash between the battleships began.

At 6.23 pm, Jellicoe had his fleet in exactly the position he wanted, sailing in a perfect line across the front of the German fleet (a manoeuvre known as “crossing the T”). Scheer found himself under heavy and accurate fire from a much larger fleet. He escaped by ordering the “battle-turn-away” manoeuvre, which saw the German battleships turn through 180 degrees and retreat in reverse order of sailing. This allowed Scheer to escape immediate destruction, but placed him to the west of the Grand Fleet. Poor visibility now began to hamper Jellicoe, who could not see what the Germans had done. For some time the British had no idea where the Germans were.

A second chance came at 7.10pm. Scheer had turned back east, with the intention of working his way around the British fleet, but once again he ran straight into Jellicoe’s battleships in their line of battle. Once again the High Seas Fleet came under accurate heavy fire, and suffered serious damage, but without loosing any ships. Once again Scheer ordered the “battle-turn-away”, and this time he protected it with a massed torpedo attack, launched from his destroyers.

This is the moment that attracts the most controversy. Jellicoe had a clear plan for dealing with a torpedo attack, refined before the battle. His battleships each turned through 45 degrees to the east, making them smaller targets for the German torpedoes. At the same time the British destroyers were sent to disrupt the German attack, reducing the number of torpedoes launched from a potential maximum of 225 to only 31. This “turn away” order was much criticized as lacking boldness. Jellicoe had previously been compared to Nelson – now that comparison was turned against him. While Jellicoe was turning away from the torpedoes, Scheer escaped into the gloom. During the night, he managed to slip past the British fleet, and returned to port, battered but with his fleet still afloat.

Jellicoe’s reasons for not taking the risk of chasing the German battle fleet through the torpedo attack were sound. If even four or five of his dreadnoughts had been sunk, the balance of power in the North Sea would have been changed. Scheer may well have still escaped into the murk, just as he had already done once before. Jellicoe was well aware that avoiding a defeat was more important than winning a victory.

Overnight he made every effort to be in the correct place to intercept Scheer’s fleet at daybreak, but with the technology of 1916 the odds were against him. Widely scattered ships made intermittent contact but communications between those ships were difficult, and accurate position keeping was difficult. From time to time during the night, Jellicoe would hear news of a clash between some of his ships and unknown Germans at an uncertain location. The next morning no sign could be found of the German fleet.

In the immediate aftermath of Jutland Jellicoe’s reputation suffered badly. The Germans produced the first official news, claiming a great victory had been won. This claim was based on the destruction of three British battlecruisers. However, the initial German report made exaggerated claims and failed to mention any German losses. As a more accurate picture of the battle emerged, Jellicoe’s reputation quickly recovered. He had been in possession of the battlefield on the day after the battle, a clear indication of victory. Although the Germans had not lost any dreadnoughts or battlecruisers, many of their ships were very badly damaged and were out of service for months. Only one German battlecruisers was fit to go to sea on 2 June. The British battle fleet was still intact, and the blockade of Germany was unbroken. Each time Scheer had been faced with the British battleships, he had turned and fled.

One more chance followed for a fleet battle. On 19 August 1916 Scheer came out to sea with a somewhat reduced fleet. Jellicoe responded, but neither side took the sort of risks that might have produced another battle. Two British cruisers were lost to submarines, and Jellicoe came to the conclusion that the Grand Fleet should no longer respond to every German sortie. Instead, he would wait for the blockade to force the Germans to fight their way out of the North Sea.

First World War – First Sea Lord

After Jutland the main threat at sea came from German submarines. In November 1916, Jellicoe was promoted to first sea lord, with the task of taking on the German U-boats. His arrival at the Admiralty was quickly followed by the start of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917 and a dramatic rise in sinkings. The eventual response to this was the adoption of the convoy system, but at first the Admiralty was opposed to this. Their reasons are often overlooked, but were in many cases valid. One big problem was the lack of suitable escort ships. At the start of 1917 Admiralty studies suggested that there were only twenty destroyers available to escort convoys through the dangerous outer approaches. The number of escorts required for a convoy was greatly overestimated, with many believing that each escort could protect at most one or two merchant ships. A conference of Merchant Marine captains revealed many potential problems, amongst them the loss of many experienced officers to the Royal Navy since 1914. It was suggested that most merchant ships would be unable to keep station. The adoption of a convoy system would also result in a loss of capacity, as faster ships were forced to travel at the speed of the slowest, reducing the number of trips they could run.

A number of factors combined to remove most opposition to the convoy system. The entry of the United States into the war was perhaps the most important. Prior to that, it was unlikely that the United States would have permitted the formation of guarded convoys at their ports, seeing it as a violation of neutrality. Once America was in the war this problem disappeared. The problem of finding enough escorts was also reduced by the entry of the United States Navy into the war (this also freed a squadron of British cruisers until then busy preventing American goods reaching Germany). The crisis of early 1917 made some sort of change imperative. In April 1917, the worst month of the crisis, 881,841 tons of shipping had been sunk by enemy action.

In February the French Coal Trade was placed into convoys. This was perhaps the most important element in convincing the admiralty to introduce convoys on a wider scale – after six weeks it was clear that these convoys had produced a massive reduction in losses on this valuable route. Finally on 26 April Admiral Duff presented Jellicoe with a report into anti-shipping measures, in which the adoption of convoys was recommended. On 27 April, Jellicoe approved the plan. Three days later Lloyd George made a visit to the Admiralty, which he later claimed resulted in the adoption of the convoy system.

Jellicoe eventually fell foul of Lloyd George. In July 1917 Sir Eric Geddes was appointed as first lord of the Admiralty, and on Christmas Eve 1917 Geddes fired Jellicoe. His fellow sea lords threatened to resign, but Jellicoe convinced them not to. His dismissal was not entirely unjustified – he was clearly tired, and increasingly pessimistic. The nature of his dismissal has led some to suggest that he was made first sea lord as a polite way of dismissing him from command of the Grand Fleet, an unfair conclusion. His main weakness as first sea lord was his lack of political ability, something of which even his great supporter Fisher was aware.

Post War

After the war Jellicoe was appointed to help the dominions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand create their own independent navies. This involved a year long cruiser around the empire, during which period Jellicoe became convinced that Japan was a likely future enemy. He recommended the creation of a strong Far East fleet, twice the strength of the Japanese fleet, supported by strong naval bases. This plan was almost immediately overtaken by the arms control agreements contained in the Washington treaties of 1922. Twenty years later the Royal Navy was not present in strength in the Far East when war with Japan broke out, but even if Jellicoe’s proposed eastern fleet had been constructed, it would almost certainly have been called back to European waters during 1939-1940.

From 1920 to 1924 Jellicoe was a popular governor-general of New Zealand, only returning to Britain because of the age of his children. In retirement he held a variety of voluntary posts, including post with the Boy Scouts and a period as president of the British Legion. He died in 1935 after catching a chill while planting poppies.

Jellicoe was the centre of a series of post-war controversies. Jutland was the cause of many of them, producing a series of pro- and anti- Jellicoe accounts. His role in the introduction of the convoy system was also a cause of controversy, much of it inaccurate. His greatest weakness was an unwillingness to delegate, that can perhaps be traced back to the loss of the Victoria in 1893. His failure to win a clearly decisive victory at Jutland remains the biggest blemish on his record.

Official History of the War, Naval Operations Vol. I, Sir Julian Corbett. Volume one of five in the British Official History of the First World War at sea, this book covers the first five months of the war, from the period of tension before the fighting began to the battle of the Falklands. This was the period that saw the most action on the surface outside the North Sea, with a number of German cruisers at large. [see more]
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Official History of the War, Naval Operations Vol. II, Sir Julian Corbett. Volume two of five in the British Official History of the First World War at sea covers the naval attack on the Dardanelles and early months of the Gallipoli campaign. On the home front it includes the German raid on the Yorkshire coast of December 1914 and the battle of Dogger Bank [see more]
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Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 October 2007), John R. Jellicoe, 1859-1935, British Admiral,

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