British Flag Signalling

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During the Great War, the Royal Navy relied primarily on a rich (some would say overly so) system of flag signals to coordinate maneuver and tactics in a fleet at sea. It had evolved from simple systems in the days of Admiral Nelson into a fairly well-designed but quite expansive system which sought to meet every need, whether moored in harbour or manoeuvring in the face of the enemy. In comparison, the much more compact German system of the war seemed visceral and to-the-point while achieving many of the same essentials and relying on doctrine to fill in the rest.

George Tryon's TA System

In the face of spiralling complexity in British signalling systems, which was attended by a close expectation that a fleet in battle could controlled like a marionette by the Admiral commanding, in the early 1890s George Tryon developed and employed a simple system of fleet operation that relied primarily on expecting subordinate officers to conform to the Admiral's largely unsignalled manoeuvres and focussing on meeting his presumed intent.

This system would have to a considerable degree have restored the level of trust in the top tiers of fleet command in action that had distinguished and enabled the great victories of Nelson, but it was not embraced and died along with its creator, who perished in 1893 after apparently making a grave mistake in manoeuvre orders under the cumbersome system of command signals that encouraged him to even think in such parade-ground terms. In other words, through his own fault, he died using the system he mistrusted, and his own system which was an effective remedy against such misadventure was simply thrown in after him.

The System that Persisted

The Royal Navy's flag system continued to evolve. It was a good system, but perhaps its limitations were manifested in the intricate system of deployment and conduct in the face of the enemy which would be laid out in Jellicoe's Grand Fleet Battle Orders, the very existence of which would alleviate the need to communicate orders on the fly. While it was a well thought-out plan that encompassed many contingencies, it was voluminous and static, printed in minute detail and disseminated to the Captains and subordinates of the Grand Fleet. As such, it merits suspicion that it would have to prove brittle, and might even numb his squadron and division commanders from thinking about what their Admiral, and their nation, expected of them at a given moment. The enemy would be fighting a script.

The British placed a considerable degree of trust and devotion in their Fleet Signal Book, which was, in effect, a flag signal book. Indeed, their use of wireless telegraphy, semaphore and signal lamps were intended to literally express flag signal "hoists", although other messages were also possible. But it remained the case that when the Fifth Battle Squadron was belatedly recalled to turn back to chase Hipper's scouting force, the flashed signal was expressed in analogous terms to the earlier flag signal which had gone unnoticed. A technology of the 20th century was thus subordinated to developed practice of one developed a century before.

Andrew Gordon argued in The Rules of the Game that the existence of such elaborate systems of command and control enabled and encouraged a pattern of force utilisation that would be cumbersome and which would implicitly suppress the inclination of subordinate commanders to act upon information they knew for a fact rather than hope for an effort to communicate it to the supreme commander in hope that he might understand its import and tell them to take the initiative an they would have already taken had they not been so enfettered.


See Also