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Naval Leaders

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone 1841-1920

Admiral Fisher
Admiral Fisher

Admiral 'Jacky' Fisher was an outstanding innovator and administrator responsible for wide ranging reforms which transformed the navy of the Victorian age into a military machine capable of maintaining Britain's naval supremacy in the First World War. His statement that 'the essence of war is violence; moderation in war is imbecility!' was best highlighted by his most famous creation, the battleship HMS Dreadnought .

Aged 13 Fisher joined the Royal Navy on 12 June 1854. Given his future influence on the navy it was appropriate that his first ship was HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. He first saw action in a failed attack on the Taku forts in China on 25 June 1859, the Royal Navy's only major defeat in the nineteenth century.

Fisher established a reputation as a gunnery and torpedo expert. He was appointed to HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy's gunnery school in 1872, to give torpedo instruction aboard HMS Vernon. In 1876 Vernon became an independent establishment with responsibility for torpedo and mine warfare. At the bombardment of Alexandria in Egypt in 1882, Fisher commanded the battleship HMS Inflexible whose gunnery was very accurate.

In the 1890s Fisher masterminded the adoption of the torpedo boat destroyer to deal with the new menace of torpedo boats. He argued that a 'flotilla defence' of torpedo craft, both small surface ships and new submarines could dominate the narrow seas around Britain.

On becoming Third Sea Lord in 1892 Fisher showed his impatience by walking through the Admiralty with a placard around his neck announcing 'I have no work to do!'. Between 1899-1902 he was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and improved the reliability of fleet as well as encouraging independent tactical thinking on the part of junior officers.

Fisher became First Sea Lord in 1904 and remained in the post until the beginning of 1910. He was not able to get all his ideas adopted but the period was revolutionary enough. Many old ships were scrapped, 'a miser's hoard of useless junk' in Fisher's words, and their inshore duties taken over by the new surface and submarine flotillas. The reduced reserve fleet was made more ready for war and the fleet was concentrated in home waters to meet the threat posed by the growing German High Seas Fleet.

Most notably, the all-big-gun concept was applied both to battleships and large armoured cruisers, battlecruisers, producing the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought and HMS Invincible. As Germany emerged as the major threat, a country with few armoured cruisers, Fisher was forced to concentrate on the battleships rather than the battlecruisers but the combination threw Germany's plans for a naval build up into confusion.

All these changes were done against a background of great controversy and Fisher was eventually forced from office but his innovative policies helped Britain to win the naval race.

In 1914 Winston Churchill recalled Fisher to office as First Sea Lord. He began a massive shipbuilding programme which served the navy well later in the war. In November 1914 two British armoured cruisers were sunk off the coast of Chile by the superior German East Asiatic Squadron. Controversially Fisher ordered the despatch of two battlecruisers from the Grand Fleet to the South Atlantic. His gamble paid off at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 when the German raiders were destroyed.

Fisher resigned in May 1915 after a disagreement with Churchill over the increasing use of naval forces in the Dardanelles campaign against Turkey. Fisher was concerned about diverting resources away from the fight against Germany. Despite Churchill's pleas, he refused to reconsider his decision ending a remarkable career which had lasted 61 years.

Further reading:

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