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World War I: Admiral of the Fleet John "Jackie" Fisher


World War I: Admiral of the Fleet John

Admiral of the Fleet John Fisher

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Admiral John Fisher - Early Life & Career:

John Arbuthnot "Jackie" Fisher was born January 25, 1841, in Rambodde, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The son of Captain William Fisher and Sophie Fisher, his father served as an officer in the British Army and later as aide-de-camp to Governor Sir Robert Horton. With the family facing financial difficulties, Fisher was sent to London to live with his maternal grandfather, Charles Lambe, in 1847. In 1854, with his grandfather also experiencing money issues, he began to seek a naval career. This was aided by Horton's widow who asked Admiral Sir William Parker to nominate Fisher. As a result of Parker's assistance, he officially entered the Royal Navy on July 13, 1854 aboard Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's former flagship HMS Victory. Over next two years he saw service aboard the ship of the line HMS Calcutta during the Crimean War.

Elevated to midshipman in July 1856, Fisher sailed for China aboard HMS Highflyer. Taking part in the Second Opium War, he quickly learned his trade and became an expert in navigation. Serving as an acting lieutenant in 1861, Fisher received his first command, HMS Coromandel. This assignment proved short and he moved to HMS Furious later that year. While aboard, Fisher took part in the capture of the Taku Forts. Returning to Britain the following year, he easily passed his lieutenant's exam and set a new record score on the navigation portion of the test. Assigned to the Royal Navy's gunnery school, HMS Excellent, in January 1862, Fisher began a lifelong interest in naval armaments and tested new breech-loading guns. After a brief assignment aboard the new ironclad HMS Warrior in 1863, he returned to Excellent where he remained until 1869. While there, Fisher developed a fascination with torpedoes and began writing extensively on the topic.

Admiral John Fisher - A Rapid Rise:

Promoted to commander on August 2, 1869, Fisher briefly served as executive officer of HMS Donegal before assuming a similar role aboard HMS Ocean a year later. While aboard, he experimented with new technologies and installed an electrical system for firing the ship's guns. Missing his wife, Frances Broughton (m. 1866), and his work in weapons development, he sought to garner a posting in Britain. This proved successful and in 1872 Fisher returned to Excellent as head of torpedo and mine training. Working tirelessly, he split his unit off two years later and had a torpedo and mine school created under the designation HMS Vernon. Lobbying for his new technologies, Fisher frequently invited journalists and dignitaries to witness demonstrations. For his efforts, he was promoted to captain in 1876.

Returning to sea in early 1877, Fisher served as flag captain aboard HMS Bellerophon for Admiral Astley Cooper-Key, Commander of the North America and West Indies Station. In this role, he was known as a relentless trainer. Over the next year, he remained with Cooper-Key as the admiral moved to an assignment in the Channel. Briefly commanding HMS Pallas in the Mediterranean in early 1879, Fisher returned to the North American station as flag captain to Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock aboard HMS Northampton. In January 1881, Fisher received command of the new battleship HMS Inflexible which was under construction at Portsmouth. The following spring, Inflexible escorted Queen Victoria during a visit to the French Riviera.

This assignment allowed Fisher to meet the royal family and he soon formed a friendship with the future King Edward VII. With the outbreak of the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, Inflexible joined in the bombardment of Alexandria in July. Going ashore, Fisher gained famed for creating an armored train to support operations. Falling ill with dysentery, he was ordered home by Lord Northbrook. Recovering his health, Fisher received command of Excellent in April 1883 and immediately began to address what he believed to be a lack of offensive capability within the fleet. His work at Excellent led to his appointment as Director of Naval Ordnance in 1886. Also made Aide-de-Camp to the Queen a year later, he endeavored to return control of weapons manufacturing to the Royal Navy from the War Office. In August 1890, Fisher was promoted to rear admiral and the following May assigned to oversee the dockyards at Portsmouth.

Admiral John Fisher - Flag Officer:

Though only in the post for ten months, Fisher revolutionized dockyard operations and greatly increased efficiency. This led to a drastic reduction in construction time for new vessels as well as faster repairs for existing ships. In 1892, Fisher was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller for the Royal Navy. In this role he oversaw the procurement of supplies and equipment for the service. While Third Sea Lord, Fisher began advocating for the creation of torpedo boat destroyers for use in defending the battle fleet from enemy torpedo boats. This design proved successful and the new class entered production. Knighted in 1894, Fisher was promoted to vice admiral two years later with an assignment as Commander of the North America and West Indies Station soon following.

Overseeing the squadron for two years, Fisher worked hard to train his men and began a habit of conducting all training exercises at full speed. In 1899, he served as British naval delegate to the First Hague Peace Convention with orders to block all measures which could hamper the Royal Navy's operations. Highly effectively, Fisher impressed foreign leaders and ensured that the convention's resolutions excluded naval issues. Given command of the Mediterranean Fleet on July 1, 1899, Fisher began employing his usual training practices. He also encouraged his junior officers to put forward ideas and suggestions for new tactics and improving operations. This was bolstered by a prize for essays on naval topics and a map room was made available for discussing maneuvers and tactics.

Concerned about improving torpedo technology, Fisher worked to hone the fleet's long range gunnery. Promoted to admiral in 1901, he lobbied for additional ships and funding for the fleet, citing its importance to protecting British colonial interests. Generally avoiding the political realm, Fisher preferred to have his journalist friends mount newspaper campaigns on his behalf. During this time, he also came to see Germany as more of a potential naval threat than France. Appointed Second Sea Lord in 1902, he oversaw the service's personnel needs. During his tenure, he successfully merged the command and engineering branches and ensured that all officers received some training in both areas. In addition, he reformed naval cadet education and saw that they were taught an expanded curriculum of science and technology.

Admiral John Fisher - First Sea Lord:

On October 21, 1904, Fisher was elevated to First Sea Lord by King Edward VII. In operational control of the Royal Navy, he was tasked with reducing expenditures and preparing the service for a modern naval war. Assessing the Royal Navy's inventory, he immediately retired ninety obsolete warships and placed an additional sixty-four into reserve. Publically criticized for these actions, Fisher pointed out that the ships in question were "too weak to fight and too slow to run away" from modern warships. Achieving the desired cost savings, he began to advocate for the creation of "all-big-gun" battleships. This led to the building of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Featuring ten 12-in guns, Dreadnought immediately made all existing battleships obsolete. Fisher wished to support this class of battleship with a new type of cruiser that sacrificed armor for speed. Dubbed battlecruisers, the first of this new class, HMS Invincible, was laid down in April 1906.

As Fisher worked to build a modern battleship-centric fleet for the Royal Navy, he also lobbied for the development of submarines and other smaller craft. Working tirelessly, his efforts were not limited to ship types, but also saw him push the Royal Navy towards utilizing oil-fueled engines rather than older coal-fueled types. Though largely supported by the government, Fisher's reforms brought him into conflict with older traditionalists within the Royal Navy, such as Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. In 1908, Fisher, still wary of Germany, correctly predicted that a conflict would erupt in mid-1914 as this was the projected completion date for the Kiel Canal which would allow the Kaiserliche Marine to transfer its ships easily between the Baltic and North Seas.

Admiral John Fisher - Retirement and Return to Power

Having been promoted to admiral of the fleet in 1905, Fisher was made Baron Fisher of Kilverstone in December 1909. Still resisting Fisher's reforms, Beresford generated sufficient support for an inquiry to be opened into the First Sea Lord's actions at the Admiralty. Though Fisher was exonerated, it damaged his reputation and he elected to leave the post in 1910. He formally retired from the Royal Navy on January 25, 1911. Over the next three years, he served on commissions investigating transitioning the fleet from coal to oil.

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Fisher began frequently communicating with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. That October, Fisher was recalled to serve as First Sea Lord after Prince Louis of Battenberg was compelled to resign due to his Germanic name. Over the next seven months, Fisher battled incessantly with Churchill over the Gallipoli Campaign. Though he provided off and on support for Churchill's endeavors against the Turks, he preferred strike directly at Germany via the Baltic Sea. Dubbed the "Baltic Project," Fisher sought to land a large force in Pomerania which could advance directly on Berlin. This operation would require approximately 600 specially-built vessels for operating in the Baltic's shallow waters. While construction of three shallow-draft battlecruisers moved forward, the project was abandoned and Fisher resigned on May 15, 1915, after becoming exasperated with Churchill.

For the remainder of the war, Fisher served as head of the government's Board of Invention and Research. Returning to retirement, he died of cancer in London on July 10, 1920. Following a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, Fisher's remains were cremated and interred at Kilverstone.

Selected Sources

  • First World War: Admiral John Fisher
  • Royal Naval Museum: John Fisher
  • Admiral John Fisher: Service Record

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