Who was Admiral Sir David Beatty?

Who was Admiral Sir David Beatty? In the epic and immortal World War 1 Naval Battle of Jutland, two British figures, Admiral Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Beatty became the legends of the battle. Both would go on to become a First Sea Lord and Earl and become legends in the Royal Navy’s history.

But, was one a hero and the other not?

Were either Beatty or Jellicoe to blame for the lack of British strength at Jutland? 

The British people expected Trafalgar’s outcome. And the British public did not like their outcome from Jutland. But, Beatty seems to be the figure who put the British in harm’s way. 

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Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805

Beatty failed to give his location and direction several times. He failed to communicate to Admiral Jellicoe the fleet he was engaging in. Along with this, he failed to communicate his losses. Beatty’s supposed mission was to draw out the High Seas Fleet and to lure them into destruction by the larger and more favorably armed and armored Grand Fleet.

If Beatty had communicated the aforementioned information, then he couldn’t continue on his quest to beat the German fleet. 

Personal Glory 

Was Beatty out for personal glory?

As a cadet, Beatty received beatings three different times for infractions.

David Beatty hunting in Leicestershire

This despite a gentleman’s upbringing in an 18th century mansion and horse training.

David Beatty came from an old Irish family. On the male side his ancestors were sportsmen and soldiers. His great-grandfather fought at Waterloo and others raised a troop of cavalry, the Heathfield Horse, which served with distinction under Wellington in the Peninsular War. The family seat was Borodale, a sizeable sporting estate outside Ennuscorthy, County Wexford.

Beatty also used his mother in 1886 to write to a friend in Parliament acquire a better placement in the Royal Navy. This, after Beatty didn’t like his original assignment.

Beatty’s mother, Katrine Sadlier. Katrine was married to a fellow officer when she and David Snr. embarked upon a relationship and they were not able to marry until David was six months old.

At Jutland put his lighter Battlecruisers in jeopardy. Furthermore, Beatty held fire until after German Admiral Hipper(pictured below) opened fire.

See the source image

This was despite having range & ship superiority. The British left Derfflinger unassigned and the 5TH Battle Squadron left behind. 

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Derfflinger seen from the air c. 1918
Jeopardy that cost several ships and thousands of lives. 

Beatty also tried to change reality and fake the official take on the battle – specifically claiming the battlecruisers did a loop after the battle fleets engaged. Beatty denied that Lion did a 360 degree turn. And furthermore, claimed that she did two connected ‘S’ maneuvers. But, more importantly, the High Seas Fleet was able to get away. 

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HMS Lion :  Photograph SP 1672 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

But, there is evidence that Beatty argued for squadronal & divisional tactics focusing on communication after the 1912 Royal Navy exercises.

The problem was that this would have meant retraining the fleet from top to the bottom, a massive undertaking. Jellicoe later admitted to Sturdee(pictured below) that squadronal/divisional tactics probably were the right answer, but retraining the fleet in the midst of a war was impossible.

See the source image

Beatty’s retention of Jellicoe’s tactics suggests he agreed.

Communication’s Value In Battle

The second war was an example of the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The American Navy kept their objective secret and solid communication was key to victory. US Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance believed in solid communication with his fleet and was hyper successful because of it.

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Battleship Versus Battleship : Guadalcanal Battle 14–15 November, 1942

On the other hand, Beatty went wandering off in pursuit of a great battle. As opposed to Admiral Spruance, who was able to stop the Japanese fleet and still win a great battle.

The Philippines

US Navy Vice-Admiral Halsey’s lack of communication, on the other hand resulted in the most lopsided naval victory of the war at a great cost. Halsey(pictured below) should have communicated properly with his older battleships to be in position as well as focusing his fast battleships on the task at hand, liberating the Philippines.

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Many military leaders have cost many lives in pursuit of their own glory. And many received promotions still.

Furthermore, Beatty had political connections. Some historians believe that Beatty only kept his rank and promotions due to his wife’s money and connections. 


The Hartlepool incident with the German Navy is one where the onus was really on Beatty, not Seymour. The real issue was not the signal to the light cruisers, but it was the signal from them. And it’s bizarre that none of the historians who have written about this incident seem to have picked up on the inconsistency.

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SMS Blücher

Beatty is said to have recalled two of the light cruisers because he believed that Goodenough was only pursuing a single German cruiser.

Ralph Seymour, unable to distinguish which cruisers were in sight, didn’t identify specific ships in his recall signal. And it was taken in by all four of Goodenough’s ships, all of which complied. (Seymour hadn’t addressed the signal to Goodenough, though, which might have been a hint.)


However, Goodenough’s signal to Beatty had specified “LIGHT CRUISERS”, and he reemphasized this in his reply to Beatty’s very public reprimanding of the Commodore for breaking off the pursuit.

‘Dreadnought’ author Robert K. Massie commented that had Beatty known Goodenough was in pursuit of more than one light cruiser, he wouldn’t have called back any of his own screen, but might even have turned the battlecruisers to join the chase.

Most historians believe that Beatty did know. Because that was what Goodenough’s signal said. That’s what was taken in by Lion. And would have been on the flimsy that either Seymour read to Beatty, or, more likely, handed it to Beatty to read for himself.

Either Seymour misread it out loud, or, in the dark of the storm that had broken, Beatty mis-heard or mis-read. If Seymour had misread it out loud, it seems likely that the Chief Yeoman would have corrected him (respectfully). It is more likely that the fault lay with the Admiral.

Someone on Lion’s bridge read the signal wrong though.

In ‘Rules Of The Game’, Andrew Gordon says it is “well documented” that both Beatty and Seymour had massive signal failures.

Furthermore, Gordon says “No matter how right Beatty was in principle,his ideas needed to be understood by those he commanded. And implemented effectively and the mishandling of the Fifth Battle Squardron does not tell of a commander implementing effective command and control.”

 Back to Jellicoe 

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Battleship HMS Iron Duke Photographed by Ernest Hopkins of Southsea The Royal Navy in the First World War The current photo version is from the Library of Congress; older revisions in the file history are from Wheeler, Harold F. B., The Life of Sir John Jellicoe, London: The Aldine Publishing Corp., 1916, p. 7.

The main issue in Jellicoe’s dismissal as First Sea Lord was the matter of convoys. Jellicoe believed that they might be useful (he didn’t seem to believe that they were the definitive solution to the U-boat), but was convinced that there weren’t enough destroyers to make convoys practical. Jellicoe was also very naive when dealing with politicians, particularly in the aftermath of Asquith’s departure.

The new political order at Westminster was essentially a bunch of ruffians.

And Jellicoe was out of his depth in dealing with them. For example, Jelicoe had a “run-in” with Lloyd George in 1909 over the Navy estimates and according to historians George would never trust him again. Geddes was a self-made railway tycoon and a vainglorious bully. Lloyd George was, in his own son’s words, a psychopath.

These were men who longed for power for their own egos. And once they had it, they’d never willingly let go.

However, in 1917, the war was going badly, and Lloyd George(pictured below) wanted scapegoats to save his own political skin.

Ideally, he’d have liked to have gotten rid of Haig, but the Field-Marshal had sufficient authority and support to make that impossible, so the Government turned on Jellicoe over the convoy issue, just as US intervention nullified his objection to the convoy system.

Pearl Harbor by US Navy Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox.

Beatty was not the immediate recipient of any benefit from this change. Wemyss, a relatively minor figure in the war so far, was appointed First Sea Lord, and held on to the office for some time after the Armistice. Even though there had been an understanding that Beatty would go to the Admiralty as soon as peace came. This was why Beatty became the first Admiral of the Fleet to fly his Union Flag as a seagoing commander.

One can make the argument that Beatty was a better First Lord than Commander in Charge of the Grand Fleet.

Beatty became a very well-connected individual politically speaking. He had a great many friends around London and in the Admiral’s office. Beatty married one of the wealthiest heiresses from America, the daughter of the Marshall Field’s retail empire, Ethel Tree.

r/WarshipPorn - CinC of the Grand Fleet, Admiral David Beatty, on board his flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, welcomes Admiral Hugh Rodman, commander of the US Navy's Battleship Division Nine, December 1917. The US Navy battleships would be integrated into the Grand Fleet as the 6th Battle Squadron …
Beatty, on board his flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, welcomes Admiral Hugh Rodman, commander of the US Navy’s Battleship Division Nine, December 1917. The US Navy battleships would be integrated into the Grand Fleet as the 6th Battle Squadron.

Rumor has it that Ethel once told an Admiral she’d buy the Navy a new ship after her husband was threatened with disciplinary action after over-stressing the engines of the Juno. Ethel was never in the best mental health, Beatty lamented later in life, that he had paid terribly for his millions, though the genuine affection for each other shines through in their letters.

To Beatty’s credit as First Lord, he did what he could to ensure that lessons were learned, even to the extent of funding the Historical Branch out of his own pocket.

Who was Admiral Sir David Beatty? Written by Frank Cheng

With much thanks going to Hadrian Jeffs for the help with this article!