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Biography: John Jellicoe

JOHN JELLICOE

Born 5 December 1859 at Southampton, the second of four sons of a Master Mariner. He entered the Royal Navy in 1872 and passed out of the training ship, HMS Britannia, top of his term in the summer of 1874. His first sea-going ship was HMS Newcastle, which he joined as a Midshipman. After two and a half years, he left the Newcastle to join the battleship HMS Agincourt, which he left on his nineteenth birthday, with a First Class Certificate of Seamanship.

After a period of study at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, he served for six months as a Signal Sub-Lieutenant on the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, HMS Alexandra. He was promoted Lieutenant in September 1880 and determined to qualify as a Gunnery specialist. However, before undertaking the intensive training required, it was necessary to complete at least a year’s watch-keeping at sea, so he returned to the Agincourt in February 1882. In May of that year, during Arabi Pasha’s rebellion in Egypt, Jellicoe distinguished himself by adopting native disguise to carry secret dispatches to Sir Garnet Wolseley through the enemy hordes.

After a year of active service, Jellicoe was released to qualify, with distinction, as a Gunnery specialist in HMS Excellent. He served as a Gunnery Officer of the turret ship, HMS Monarch in 1885 and subsequently, the new battleship, HMS Colossos in 1886 before returning to HMS Excellent as an Experimental Officer.

1889 saw the passing of the Naval Defence Act. Captain John Fisher, then Director of Naval Ordnance, requested the transfer of Jellicoe from HMS Excellent to assist him in the Act’s implementation, although such a move was contrary to precedent at that time.

Promoted Commander in 1891, Jellicoe was appointed Executive Officer of the Mediterranean flagship, HMS Victoria. He was on board the vessel, though suffering from Malta fever, when she was rammed and sunk by HMS Camperdown, during manoeuvres off the Levant coast in June 1893. He returned to England and was invalided until the autumn, when he returned to active duty on HMS Ramillies. The commission lasted three years and when Jellicoe returned to England in January 1897, he was promoted Captain.

After serving for a year on the Ordnance Committee, Jellicoe set out for the Far East, as Flag Captain of HMS Centurion. He accompanied the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Seymour, on his abortive attempt to relieve the legations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and received a bullet to the lung during the action.

Jellicoe returned home in September 1901 and was appointed to the newly created post of Naval Assistant to the Controller at the Admiralty. During a visit to Clydeside to inspect new ships under construction, he renewed his acquaintance with Florence Cayzer, the second daughter of Sir Charles William Cayzer and the couple were later married in London in July 1902. They had five children, one son and four daughters, the second of whom died in childhood.

Just over a year after his marriage, Jellicoe was appointed to command the armed cruiser, HMS Drake. This command was soon terminated, however, by Fisher’s appointment as First Sea Lord. He recalled Jellicoe to the Admiralty to be his Director of Naval Ordnance and to serve on the committee being formed to produce the first all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought.

In February 1907, Jellicoe was promoted Rear Admiral and, in August, hoisted his flag as Second-in-Command of the Atlantic Fleet. He was knighted in October 1907 and, a year later, became Controller and Third Sea Lord. His role was to ensure that the Royal Navy maintained its lead in Dreadnought construction over Germany. His appointment as Second Sea Lord was cut short by the approach of the First World War. In July 1914, he was ordered to Scapa Flow, with the acting rank of Admiral, to assume control of the Grand Fleet. His flag flew from the super-dreadnought, HMS Iron Duke.

Jellicoe’s strategy was to maintain control of the sea by a distant blockade of Germany’s ports. In May 1916, the Germans attempted to break the stranglehold by bringing the Grand Fleet to battle off the coast of Jutland. Jellicoe’s skilful deployment placed his superior battle fleet between the enemy and its base but his battle tactics will always be open to criticism, as the High Seas Fleet succeeded in escaping through his destroyer flotillas through the night of 31 May. Administrative carelessness at the Admiralty compounded Jellicoe’s problems, as he failed to receive vital information, obtained from the deciphering of German codes, giving the course of the German fleet’s retreat.

Following their narrow escape, the Germans decided to stake all on an unrestricted U-boat blockade, for which the British were ill prepared. Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1916 and, after the entry of the USA into the war, he introduced the convoy system, which effectively defeated the U-boats. His cautionary approach to the war was not to the liking of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who dismissed him from government employ at the end of 1917. In January 1918, however, he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa and was promoted Admiral of the Fleet in 1919.

Between 1919 and 1920, Jellicoe visited India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to advise on naval defence, which resulted in the construction of a major base at Singapore. He was Governor-General of New Zealand from 1920-1924, for which he was rewarded with an earldom.

During his retirement, he held the post of President of the British Legion and was also actively involved in the National Rifle Association and the Scout movement. He died, at his home in Kensington, on 20 November 1935, aged seventy-five. He was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral, beside Admirals Nelson and Collingwood and is also commemorated by a bronze bust in Trafalgar Square.

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© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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