John Arbuthnot Fisher

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John Arbuthnot Fisher

An ordnance and torpedo specialist and brilliant military tactician, John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841-1920) boosted Britain's Royal Navy to new heights prior to World War I. In combat and on sea patrol, he served admirably in China, the Crimea, Egypt, the West Indies, and the Mediterranean. An able administrator, at a time when Germany vied for supremacy at sea, he oversaw officer training, manpower, ship construction, fuel efficiency, fleet formation, and ordnance.

Rose through the Ranks

Born in Ceylon on January 25, 1841, John "Jackie" Fisher joined the navy in 1854 as a penniless boy and, during service in the Crimean War in his mid-teens, rose to midshipman. At age 18 in China during the Second Opium War, he aided in the seizure of Canton and the Pei forts. After twenty years of experience, he helped to revise The Gunnery Manual, a handbook on marksmanship and gun maintenance.

By age 33, Fisher attained the rank of captain and commanded the superior battleship H.M.S. Inflexible at the 1882 bombardment of Alexandria's forts during the Egyptian War. He and his naval brigade mounted an overland attack on Ahmed Arabi Pasha, who led the nationalist revolt. As a result of the offensive, Britain established a 40-year occupation in North Africa.

Fisher progressed to captain of the H.M.S. Excellent, the navy's name for its gunnery school. After five years instituting innovations to torpedo design, Fisher directed naval ordnance and torpedoes and served on the admiralty board. He rose to Third Sea Lord and controller of the navy in 1892. Within four years, he achieved the rank of rear admiral and then vice admiral and received a knighthood.

A Leader during Peacetime

From 1897 to 1899, an era of relative calm in the Western Hemisphere, Fisher commanded military readiness in North America and the West Indies. At the end of his tour, after taking charge of the British military in the Mediterranean, he helped negotiate terms at the First Hague Peace Conference, which initiated a permanent court of arbitration for settlement of international disputes. A blunt champion of a strong military, he startled fellow delegates with the statement that "war is the essence of violence" and proposed that nations make war so terrible that challengers would go to great lengths to avoid combat. His concept of preparedness was priming the British fleet to strike first and hardest and to keep up the pace. In 1902, a year after he was made full admiral, he received a chance to apply his philosophy as Second Sea Lord of training and recruitment for the Home Fleet.

Fisher's responsibilities in the navy required that he upgrade fleet efficiency, improve sailors' welfare with better food and firm discipline, and overhaul the training for officers. He accomplished all of these objectives with the aid of a group of experienced naval captains. In 1904, he headquartered at Portsmouth, England, as First Sea Lord and began honing the British Navy for war with Germany. At the Royal Naval College at Osborne, he controlled the training of cadets. In this same period, through a review commission, he advised the British cabinet to reorganize the War Office to resemble the admiralty board. This tactless proposal prompted a vocal campaign against him that continued until his retirement.

A Bold Reformer

To bolster home defense against the mounting threat from Germany, Fisher weeded out weak or useless vessels and reassigned men to reserve crews. He reorganized and modernized the fleet and oversaw the Portsmouth dockyards and the construction of lighter, faster ships. To increase Britain's chances of surviving all-out war, he developed firepower and submarines, which he saw as the offensive wave of the future.

Fisher surprised and dismayed his critics by converting ships from coal to oil. His support of petroleum as the fuel of the future earned him the nickname "godfather of oil." The switch in fuel for steam boilers forced England away from dependence on native coal and into ongoing political involvement in the Middle East, the source of British crude oil. In 1905, his wisdom and fighting spirit earned Fisher the Order of Merit and command of the entire fleet.

Fisher created the British military model based on rapid and all-out response to war to shorten conflict and lessen damage. For this goal of brief but lethal engagement, he developed torpedoes and oversaw design and construction of the battleship Dreadnought, modeled on the German warship and armed with ten 12-inch guns. He described it as "the hard-boiled egg—because she cannot be beat." By December 1906, the prototype ship stood ready for use. Fisher approved of its speed and deadliness and acquired eight more new fighting ships for the British navy. True to his prediction, the dreadnought concept revolutionized warfare at sea.

Fisher supported his heavy gun ships with light, maneuverable armored battle cruisers, beginning with the H.M.S. Invincible, which was capable of traveling at 25 knots. His intent was to surround heavy gun ships with lightweight cruisers that would act as scouts. For instant manpower, he designed a system that removed battle-ready crew and officers from the Mediterranean Sea, familiarized them thoroughly with ships and strategy, and placed them on England's coast for immediate call-up.

Replaced Traditions

Fisher fearlessly retired the preferential treatment system for which the old-style military was known. He ended a promotions system based on social class and replaced it with promotion based on talent and experience. To open military careers to all young men, he abolished tuition to Dartmouth and Osborne, the training centers for the Royal Navy. Fisher advocated four or more years of sea duty in addition to classroom training at the newly established Royal Naval College at Osborne. To better defend Great Britain, he ordered that the cream of the navy form a home fleet to remain in England at shore barracks ready for deployment. With men kept in tip-top form by constantly familiarizing themselves with the latest in equipment, ships and crew functioned at peak efficiency.

The concept of a home fleet earned sharp criticism from Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who commanded the Channel Fleet. Beresford chafed at Fisher's taking a lead in developing Britain's battle plans. The tug of war between naval heads polarized the high command, endangering military readiness. True to Beresford's warning, Fisher's reshaping of the British fighting fleet and its crews failed in competition with Germany's big gun ships. Beresford called for an investigating committee to determine whether Fisher's dispersal of warships was at fault. The internal inquiry into Beresford's charges neither confirmed them nor advanced Fisher's theories.

In 1909, a year before his retirement on January 25, 1910, Fisher became one of the few naval officers raised to the British peerage when he was named Baron Fisher of Kilverstone. Severely weakened by his detractors' campaign, he continued to advise another of his critics, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, on equipping the navy and on building the Queen Elizabeth class of fast, oil-powered battleships. Churchill reciprocated by appointing him to chair a commission on fuel oil purchase, which completed its report in 1913.

Prepared for War

Recalled into service in October 1914 to replace Prince Louis of Battenberg, Fisher once more assumed the role of First Sea Lord under Churchill. Fisher's attitude toward war had not softened with age. He wrote that supremacy was Britain's best security and the source of world peace: "If you rub it in, both at home and abroad, that you are ready for instant war, with every unit of your strength in the first line and waiting to be first in, and hit your enemy in the belly and kick him when he is down … then people will keep clear of you." In a letter to German Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in March 1916, Fisher barked, "You're the sailor who understands war. Kill your enemy or be killed yourself."

Already steeled for World War I, Fisher faced a test of readiness in November 1914, after Sir Christopher Cradock lost two major cruisers in the Pacific at the battle of Coronel. Fisher amassed an armada of 600 ships to ward off German submarines and commissioned military blimps to scout for German U-boats. The added muscle and surveillance enabled the British to trounce the fleet of German Admiral Graf von Spee on December 8 at the battle of the Falkland Islands.

War and Retreat

Fisher's impressive military history ended in a disagreement over Churchill's chancy assault on the Dardanelles. Vigorous, combative, and original in his thinking, Fisher did not work well as Churchill's underling. As World War I worsened, Churchill rejected Fisher's proposal for an amphibious assault on Germany's Baltic coast. Instead, Churchill called for an expedition against the Dardanelles in the eastern Mediterranean to assure that the fleet could pass through unharmed. Because Fisher feared that heavy concentrations of firepower off Turkish shores would weaken protection of the Baltic Sea, he proposed instead an Anglo-Russian assault on Germany's northern shores. On May 15, 1915, the day after Churchill announced his intent to attack the Dardanelles, Fisher resigned. The British failed in the assault, and Fisher's analysis proved correct.

A patriot and friend to the British military, Fisher spent his last years serving in various ways. In July 1915, he chaired a board of invention and research to help the Royal Navy absorb the latest scientific breakthroughs. In vain, he hoped for reappointment to naval command. During his second retirement, he compiled the two-volume Memories and Records (1919), containing autobiography, combat philosophy, and speculation on air-based wars of the future. Witty and fun-loving, he developed his interests in dancing, the Bible, and military history. Evaluating Fisher's contributions to British military preparedness, Churchill later commended him for his reforms during a critical era in world history.


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