Sir John Kelly was a First World War naval captain who rose to the top of the navy as commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet after the war. His father, Henry Kelly, had served in the Royal Marine Artillery and both John and his older brother W. A. Howard Kelly entered the navy. John Kelly entered the navy in 1884, and was initially only moderately able. He was initially considered to by only of “doubtful” service usefulness, and gained a second-class certificate when he was promoted to lieutenant in 1893.
Despite this his actual career progressed well. He spent six years on the Australia station, serving for three years on the Royal Arthur. He qualified as a gunnery officer, and served on the cruiser Forte on the Cape station, where he was promoted to commander in 1904. With that rank he served on the China station, before being promoted to captain in 1911.
From 1913-1914 he served as superintendent of physical training, before being given command of the Chatham class light cruiser Dublin, on the Mediterranean fleet, in July 1914. In the early days of the war Dublin and Gloucester were the only ships able to keep in touch with the German battle-cruiser Goeben as she made her way to Constantinople. At this time Gloucester was commanded by his brother.
After the Dublin Kelly commanded the much larger armoured cruiser Devonshire and then the light cruiser Weymouth, before in 1917 being given command of the battlecruiser Princess Royal, the sister ship of HMS Lion and one of the three best battlecruisers in the British fleet. At the end of the war he was appointed a Companion of the Bath (CB).
After the war Kelly rose steadily through the ranks, serving as director of the Operations Division of the Naval Staff (1919), gaining promotion to rear-admiral (1921), serving with the Home Fleet from 1922-1923, commanding the 4th Battle Squadron and spending much of the period in the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. From 1924-1927 he was Fourth Sea Lord, gaining a promotion to vice-admiral in 1926. In 1927 he took command of the First Battle Squadron and served as second in command of the Mediterranean Fleet. In 1929-1931 he served as admiral commanding reserves, with a promotion to full Admiral in 1930. In 1929 he was created a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB).
In 1931 he was on the verge of retiring, when news of a pay cut ranging from 10% to 25% reached units of the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. On 15 September the crews of a number of major ships refused to follow orders to put to sea to take part in exercises. The “mutiny” was essentially a strike over pay and conditions, and only lasted for one day, with all the ships involved sailing for their home bases on 16 September.
Kelly was chosen as the right man to deal with the aftermath of the mutiny, and was promoted to commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet (soon renamed the Home Fleet). He was acknowledged as having excellent personnel management skills. He held the post for two years, and soon demonstrated those skills. The worst parts of the pay cut were cancelled, 121 ratings were dismissed from the service and the fleet kept busy. In his report on the affair Kelly blamed the Admiralty for their poor handling of the pay issue, allowing the crews of the Atlantic fleet to learn of it through newspapers. He was also unimpressed with their general lack of interest in personnel issues. The naval schoolmaster branch also came in for criticism for its “socialistic” staff.
Kelly was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GVCO) in 1932, an order of chivalry created to reward people who had performed a personal service for the monarch. Two years later he was appointed to search as the king’s first and principle naval aide-de-camp (1934-1936). His final appointment was as commander-in-chief at Portsmouth. One day before reaching compulsory retirement age, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet. After one day as the most senior officer of the Royal Navy, he retired. Four months later, on 4 November 1936, he died at a nursing home in London. He was buried at sea on 7 November.
Two years after Admiral Kelly’s death, the destroyer HMS Kelly, famous as the ship commandeered by Lord Louis Mountbatten during the Second World War, was named after him. Despite his early lack of promise, Kelly had proved to be a commander who could earn the respect of all ranks in the navy,