Fifty Years in the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Percy Scott
Fifty Years in the Royal Navy
Admiral Sir Percy Scott
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Admiral Sir Percy Moreton Scott, 1st Baronet, KCB, KCVO, was a British Royal Navy officer and a pioneer in modern naval gunnery. During his career he proved to be an engineer and problem solver of some considerable foresight, ingenuity and tenacity. He did not, however, endear himself to the Navy establishment for his regular outspoken criticism of the Navy's conservatism and resistance to change and this undoubtedly slowed the acceptance of his most important ideas, notably the introduction of directed firing. In spite of this, his vision proved correct most of the time and he rose to the rank of admiral and amongst other honours was made baronet, a hereditary title. His autobiography, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy, was published in 1919.

Fifty Years in the Royal Navy

Percy Scott

Fifty Years in the Royal Navy


In this volume I have set down the recollections of a lifetime of sixty-five years. It deals with my service in the Royal Navy during a period of over half a century. I entered it when most of the ships were propelled by wind, steam being only an auxiliary; our gun carriages differed little from those of Queen Elizabeth’s day; midshipmen were punished in peculiar ways, and seamen received the “cat?” for comparatively minor offences. In 1913 I was retired at my own request, and I thought that my active career had ended. I was mistaken, for, as these pages record, I was drawn into the backwaters of the War and became associated again with gunnery matters, with the fight against the enemy’s submarines, and with the defence of London against aircraft, rendering to the best of my ability what service I could do to the country. I should not have decided to issue these chapters, which I began writing by way of recreation and amusement after I had gone on the retired list, if I did not hope that they might serve a useful purpose in future years.

From the time when I was a junior lieutenant I was interested in gunnery, realising its importance, and this book is devoted mainly to describing my efforts, assisted by other officers — in particular. Admirals of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone and Viscount Jellicoe — to improve the shooting of the British Fleet.

How far these pages may prove of general interest I cannot tell, but they will at least show how opposed the Navy can be to necessary reforms, involving radical departures from traditional routine; the extent to which national interests may be injured owing to conservative forces within, and without, the public services; and what injury the country may suffer from politicians interfering in technical matters, which they necessarily do not understand. It is my hope that ultimate benefit may result from an honest attempt to shed light upon matters of vital concern to the nation by means of my personal record. In that belief, these reminiscences have been published, and I would only wish to add that nothing has been set down in malice. My intention has been not to attack persons, but to expose rather the weaknesses and defects of our administrative machinery, in so far as I had experience of it.

Obstinate opposition to change and reform is, in my opinion, a crime. In these days of rapid advance of science and swift development of mechanics, unless we move ahead we are bound to become retrograde. In order to hold our place in the world, in naval as well as in other affairs, we must encourage initiative, and, above all, so far as the Sea Service is concerned, inculcate in our officers ideas consistent with a modem steam Navy, instead of clinging to traditions and routines which were good in their day, but are now obsolete. And I may add that I have not much belief in the influence of an elaborately organised Naval Staff at the Admiralty, for the best creation of that character, possessed by Germany, failed under the test of war, as Lord Jellicoe’s book on the record of the Grand Fleet has revealed. The Navy does not require a greatly expanded Naval Staff sitting in offices at the Admiralty performing routine work, most of which is unnecessary and seems to be done mainly in order to swell the number of officials employed. The Service requires open-eyed, well-educated, progressive, practical seamen, spending most of their time afloat, and when employed at the Admiralty not immersed in day-to-day routine, but with time to think of the needs of the future and how they should be met.

But the root of bad naval administration lies, in my opinion, in the system by which business at the Admiralty is conducted. The civilian element, being permanent, obtains too much influence, and the naval element, which is always changing, has too little influence. The spirit in which work is done is wrong. There is insufficient incentive to encourage the best men. If a man does nothing, or next to nothing, he may be sure that he will do no wrong and his career will not be endangered; hence there arises a general desire to shirk responsibility and to evade making a decision until as many sub-departments as possible are drawn into the discussion. By that widely recognised means the individual who should act evades his personal responsibility and business is delayed, sometimes with serious results to the country.

As an illustration I will take the case of a proposal which is put forward for introducing a new way of firing the guns in His Majesty’s ships, involving alterations of fittings, additional electricity, structural changes, and also affecting the engineering department. When the suggestion reaches the Admiralty the original paper will be marked to be sent for consideration to the Gunnery Department, the Electrical Department, the Dockyard Department, the Chief Constructor’s Department, the Engineering Department, the Third Sea Lord, and the First Sea Lord. No limit of time is fixed; each department can keep the paper as long as it likes; it is passed from one official to another, the speed with which it moves depending upon the pleasure of each official concerned — and frequently it gets lost. I know of one case in which a letter took upwards of a year to circulate through the various departments of the Admiralty.

I suggest that this routine is radically wrong and would not be tolerated by any man accustomed to a commercial firm. He would determine to obtain the opinions of all concerned in any suggestion in the quickest possible time. First of all some one would decide if there was anything in a proposal which merited its being examined. If the decision was in the affirmative several copies would be typed and one copy sent to each person whose opinion it was desired to obtain bearing the date and time when it was sent out and the date for its return. In due course the various replies would reach the heads of the firm and the matter would be dealt with. Under some such system business men conduct their affairs, and they are amazed when they are brought in contact with the Admiralty and other public departments.

War is the supreme test of a naval administration and under that test the routine system of the Admiralty, which is slow, was found wanting. Napoleon once declared: Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. “I am less chary,” he added, of the latter than the former. Space we can recover — but time never! Because Admiralty administration is deplorably slow, it proved unsuited to war, and the nation owes much to Lord Fisher and Lord Jellicoe for their efforts to speed matters up, for in war the enemy does not wait on the convenience of a Government department in which almost every one, civil and naval, is nervous of taking responsibility and acting swiftly and decisively. Successful war-making depends in a large degree on time-saving — rapid, decisive action. The country suffered unnecessarily, and the war was unduly prolonged because that principle was so often ignored.

It is for the country to decide whether the Admiralty shall fall back into its old ways. The policy of circumlocution and delay lies at the base of our bad administration, and not, I am afraid, by any means at the Admiralty only or at the Admiralty conspicuously. At any rate, writing of things I know at first hand, I am convinced we can never hope to obtain a Fleet well equipped, well organised, and well trained, until this system of evading responsibility at the Admiralty is broken, the circulation of papers is speeded up, and the official who shirks responsibility is made to suffer, instead of being promoted as “a safe man.” Individually Civil Servants are men of wide interests whom it is a pleasure to meet, but the system of the Civil Service is, in my opinion, a public danger. This book has been written in vain if it does not carry conviction that our naval administration is based on wrong principles.

Chapter I
Entry into the Navy

Entry into the Navy — Life in the Britannia — My First Sea-going Ship — A Sailing Passage to Bombay — Discipline on Board — Chasing slave Dhows — The Slave Market at Zanzibar — Lessons In Seamanship — Gazetted Sub-Lieutenant — With H.M.S. Active on the West Coast of Africa — Life on Ascension Island — A Punnitive Expedition up the Congo — A Successful Operation — More River Expeditions — On Board the Guardship at Cowes — An Incident of the Crimes.

The association of my family with the Royal Navy goes back for four generations; my great-grandfather was a captain in the Service. My grandfather was a doctor and a man, I believe, of considerable talent. He attempted some innovations in surgery — an art which has, of course, been revolutionised since his time; but the medical profession in those days did not welcome any departure from their recognised and often primitive methods. His inventions included some instruments for assisting the deaf, which I understand came into general use after his death. In the course of my career I was to experience the same sort of attitude on the part of those in authority, and I have sometimes reflected with a passing bitterness how little the obstructive attitude of one generation in such matters differs from that of another.

My father was a solicitor, a good linguist and an excellent public speaker. Foreign business — or the gaming-tables — took him to Baden Baden once a year, and I am told that he was a perfect loser. He was always very good to me and gave me advice that has been invaluable. It was a principle with him never to make a fuss about anything, and he impressed upon me that every occurrence, whatever it might be, should be taken with imperturbable quiet. He would quote that passage from “Pelham” who declares that among the properly educated a calm pervaded all their habits and actions, whereas the vulgar could take neither a spoon nor an affront without making an amazing noise about it. In discussing my future career, he would point out to me that in a household a fussy person could only disturb the few inmates, but in a ship one fussy person might disturb what was equivalent to a whole village. How true I have found that statement in H.M. Navy! His ideas on education were as quaint as those which exist at some of our large English schools and colleges. He wanted me to be taught only Latin and Greek, as he declared that those languages were the foundation of everything. I read Caesar with him, and having won the first prize at my dame’s school, thought I knew something. Then I went on to the University College School and continued to thrive on Latin and Greek.

At 11 1/2 years of age I got a nomination for the Navy and was sent to Eastman’s Naval Academy at Portsmouth. I shall never forget my first interview with the Headmaster. He asked me what I knew. I rather proudly replied that I had done “As in Presenti, Propria qui maribus, Caesar, and had started Ovid.” He told me that they required living languages in the Navy, and that I was dreadfully backward in all useful subjects. He added that I should have to work half my playtime, and even then he doubted if I should be able to pass the qualifying naval examination. Subsequently he took a great interest in me, was most kind in helping me with my extra lessons, and a month before the examination prophesied that I was sure to pass.

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