On Modern Naval Leadership


It was a thankless business this, leading men in the finest traditions of the naval service when the finest days of the naval service had been and passed.  The Commander wondered how Lords Nelson or Collingwood would have fared today.  They had had it easy, when all that had been required was the destruction of a pernicious foe.  The Commander inhabited a different world. George Anson had circumnavigated the globe but could he have scrutinized a service level agreement? Would F.J. Walker have despatched complications in local government planning regulations the way he despatched so many U-Boats to the North Atlantic floor? The Commander thought not. Sir Francis Drake was free to pursue his enemies in whatever way he saw fit, that had been true command, but old Frank would not have found life so straightforwardly glorious if the enemy he had seen in his telescope had not been the Duke of Medina-Sidonia but rather the more esoteric implications of a Strategic Defence Review.

And so the SDR loomed. A decision was expected from those grey suits in parliament shortly, and with it a decision about the future of the Navy. The Commander had it on good authority that the SDR would rule in favour of the new class of Aircraft Carrier which meant that the focus of the service would swing necessarily in that direction. The navy wings were set to stretch out again. The era of the Wafu was nigh, that of the bomb-boat men was over.   The green lids and the disciples of the amphibious assault were yesterday's news. Sensing this, and the fact that funding and influence would move towards the Fleet Air Arm, the Commander had instructed the Establishment to draw up plans for how this new opportunity would be embraced. In so doing, he hoped that he would be able to present to HQ a coherent plan for how the Establishment could move with the Navy into this new era. There was, of course, some self-interest involved in this – he hoped by reacting first he might be able to put a little more gold on his shoulder – but that was not the sole motivation. He did so because it was correct execution of his job. He was the Commander – it was his job to command, to see threats as they arose and to devise plans for their elimination. It was true that when he had joined the service he had expected to lead at sea, and to see the threats on a radar display, but that was no longer life in the Royal Navy. As a Commander he was nearly beyond the application of his trade at sea. The OF-6 and above ranks – what they used to call flag officers – never went to sea. They sat in offices and boardrooms and laid their plans there, as once Nelson and Jervis had laid their plans from the cabins of three-deckers. This gave his command a melancholic air. He sat reading the responses to his directive, with this melancholy in his heart. Did Lord Nelson ever have to suffer such as this?

Here was the Commander’s instruction, addressed to all Divisional Officers and Line Managers:

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) will approve Future Aircraft Carrier Class (FACC).  Outline how your department can be adapted to respond to FACC by COP Wednesday, for CDR report to ESTMT CAPT Wednesday 0800.

While this order was not quite the rival of ‘General Chase’ at Trafalgar, it was, nonetheless, framed in that tradition of brevity and initiative. There was no nuance there, or hint of prevarication, the Commander intended to take the Establishment forward and he expected his men to follow. While he could not send the ships-of-the-line in pursuit of a fleeing enemy fleet, he could lead in the Royal Naval tradition with the tools that were available. It depressed him then, to see the responses that were returned.

First came the phone calls, from the civilian line managers, it was always the civilians first. The naval officers were too smart to be seen directly questioning an order. The civilians asked “Was this strictly necessary?” and “Would it not be more prudent to wait until the full publication of the SDR?”

It was hard to imagine that when Horatio Nelson had looked up towards the fort at Tenerife and ordered his chaps onwards, that they had turned around to ask him, “Is this strictly necessary, my Lord?”.  As they flung themselves upon the walls of Santa Cruz and watched the cannonballs carry Nelson’s arm away, they had not turned round to their commander and asked for confirmation. Neither, the Commander imagined, had some Jack Tar piped up as the boats were rowed in to suggest that “it might be more prudent to wait for Lord St Vincent’s full orders.” Instead, they had got on with the bloody job.  

This was considered the civvy poison in the bloodstream of a shorebase. This was the old matelot excuse. Unlike the naval personnel who had at least been taught to pretend to obey orders, the civilians seemed to believe that directives such as the Commander’s were an invitation for open debate. He would have no truck with such things. The Commander replied that it was strictly necessary. He had expressed the command intent and now he expected to be obeyed, that he had even had to explain his intentions further with three rings on his shoulder was an inversion of the true order.

However, such laziness was not confined solely to the civilians. Sensing something of the atmosphere of the place, the military staff also indulged in equivocation. After all, these men and women knew that their posting to the Establishment was somehow a confirmation of what they felt deep down – that either they were not cut out for the front line or, if they ever had been, that those days were now behind them. Now a direct order no longer clicked with an internal instinct for action, and was seen instead as an unwanted interruption to an otherwise carefree existence. In the Commander's opinion this was unacceptable. They were still paid like Royal Navy sailors, they still wore uniforms, so they were still subject to naval discipline. However, the old matelots were canny operators. They could never be caught actually questioning an order.

So it was that SO2 Training had presented himself to the Commander’s Executive assistant and politely enquired if the Commander was aware that tonight (Wednesday) was the Wardroom cheese and wine night. If the Commander were to be scrutinising status reports from the Establishment’s departments might he render himself unable to attend? The Commander had heard this temerity through the thickness of his office door. SO2 Training – Lt Cdr Austin – was the epitome of the Establishment. He was an Upper Yardman Officer, which was to say he had risen from the ranks mid-way through his career, meaning that he had all the low cunning of a rating combined with all the self-serving pomposity of a commissioned officer. It was skillfully done, but to the Commander it came damn close to insubordination.

It was a far cry from when General Eisenhower had come to Sir Bertram Ramsey and asked him to begin the seaborne preparations for D-Day. The Admiral had not told the supreme commander that he could not make June 6thbecause it clashed with the Western Area Cross Country Championship. Instead, Ramsay had engaged with the task at hand, and landed thousands and thousands of men on the beaches of Normandy. How Austin might cope if thrown now into the channel to navigate himself past the Kriegsmarine was anybody's guess. It would not do. The Commander had said jump and the only remaining option to them was to consider how high.

The expected reply to any order was “Aye, aye, sir.” That was confirmation that an order had been understood and would be carried out. However, instances where the subordinate was expected to go beyond that presented difficulties. What the Commander wished was relatively simple. Nonetheless, it was common practice in the Establishment to see a change of circumstances as an opportunity to reopen old grievances, or revisit frustrated ambitions. So it was that Mr Clarke – the Executive Warrant Officer (EWO) – responded:

  1. CT section can be adapted to train FACC Ship’s Company for large-scale ceremonials by the expansion into offices A12, A14 & A16, and the addition of floodlighting to main parade ground. (Plans previously submitted – see Appendix A)
  1. WOSR Mess can be adapted to host large scale ceremonial training attendees, but would require replacement snooker table and building of skittle alley. (Plans previously submitted – see Appendix B)

Perhaps it was romantic to think that all men sought an opportunity to please their commanders. Instead, a good deal of life in the senior service was complete self-interest. It was lamentable to think that here were the heirs to Raleigh, Drake and Frobisher. Men who had sailed into terra incognita. When Drake was given freedom of action, he had not asked for a new bowling green on Plymouth Hoe. He had sailed into the harbour at Cadiz, burned the Fleet and singed the King of Spain’s beard. The commander despaired. He had, as yet, very little he could use to brief the captain in the morning.

Aboard ship, life was simple. Even more so in those olden times when the Captain had been a miniature monarch of his own seaborne kingdom. In those days you could flog men until they obeyed orders. Then, you could keel-haul them. Aboard ship there was no ambiguity as to whom one was required to take orders from. It was the Captain and beneath him his XO – the Commander. Ashore, with argumentative civilians, their trade unions, competing Ministry-level policies and an ever-swirling maelstrom of blame and credit, it was easy for people to lose sight of the proper chain of command.  

The Chaplaincy, various marines, the security guards and the Scientific Department all claimed that although they were to be found upon Establishment grounds they did, in point of fact, owe their allegiance elsewhere – to the Chaplain of the Fleet, the Commandant General, the Military Provost Guard Service and an outsourced contractual arrangement respectively. This, so they claimed, precluded them from following the Commander’s order to its full extent. Elsewhere perhaps, a less determined commander, who had given up like the rest of the base’s personnel, might have allowed these claims to go unchecked. This was not such a commander.

Close of play (Wednesday) drew near. He had received all reports bar one – that of the Resources and Plans (R&P) department, controlled by the Senior Civil Servant (SenCiv). It was at times like this that the Commander found himself idly wishing that a war might break out to save him from this indignity. Then at least he would have the option of old HMS Campbelltown, blow oneself sky-high, and never have to deal with lazy, old sailors, grinning civil servants and strategic defence reviews ever again.

At 1630, nominally half an hour before all responses were required, SenCiv presented himself in person. He had an overly familiar manner. He was scrupulously polite as befitted a senior civil servant and a master of passive aggression

            “Good afternoon, Commander, a word if I may?”

            The Commander indicated that the SenCiv should sit.

            “Reference: your order dated this morning. I was wondering if I could seek one or two points of clarification.”

            The Senior Civil Servant had not risen to such seniority by accident.   He knew that time could always be bought, and sometimes an entire project brought down by asking for clarification. This could be conceptual, on point of grammar, or semantics. It did not matter.

            “Is it really possible to respond to a report that has not yet been published? Logically,” he asked. “Is the intention to say how we will respond to the SDR or to FACC?   As there may be parts of the SDR that do not apply to FACC, and parts of FACC not covered by the SDR.”

            “How your section will respond to the A/C programme.”

            “The response should be to that proposition, or to the original order?”

            “That wasthe original order.”

            “The Aircraft Carrier Programme generally, or as envisioned by FACC?”


            “The version outlined in the white paper?”

            “Yes,” said the Commander.

            “Rather than the version projected for the SDR?  You can appreciate the potential for confusion, Commander?”

            “Will you be able to draft a response?” asked the Commander.

            “A draft response, certainly.”

            “Very good.”

            Had he been with Mark Anthony in Rome and been told to “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!”, the Senior Civil Servant would no doubt have demanded to know the breed before proceeding. For all that men such as this went on about language, they had no love for it. They had no poetry in their souls. It was why they had become pen-and-ink men rather than following the true glory.

Shortly after he departed the Commander’s office, the Senior Civil Servant replied with the final insult:

            R&P will take all appropriate actions, as necessary, to respond to FACC under direction of senior command.

            ‘Appropriate actions, as necessary’ specified no course of action. One could be sat in a boat with a hole in the floor and argue that it was neither appropriate nor necessary to start bailing. It was more mealy-mouthed nonsense and it convinced the Commander that his plan may have been doomed from the start. He could imagine the wry look in SenCiv’s eyes. This was all some game to him.  

As the Commander left his office that evening, with the sound of the Wardroom cheese and wine night echoing down the main corridor, the Commander stopped for a moment to examine one of the oil paintings that adorned the Establishment’s walls. It was a depiction, by some obscure maritime artist, of Captain Thomas Fremantle R.N. aboard the Neptune receiving Nelson's famous signal at Trafalgar. Ah, to be part of that band of brothers thought the Commander and not the men that he had here…

            “What says his Lordship,” Captain Fremantle would ask.

            “Order reads, England expects,” the signalling lieutenant would reply, “that every man should do his duty,”

            “Does he mean England?   Should he not rather have said Great Britain?”

            “We could clarify terms Captain?” would come a suggestion.

            “Perhaps that would be wise. Also, it might be worth saying that it would be more prudent to wait for better orders from Lord St Vincent – see what he thinks about the whole thing.”

            “Yes,” an agreeing voice would say, “I had rather thought that we were under St Vincent, rather than Lord Nelson.”

            “Do you think also,” Fremantle would begin, another idea coming to him, “we could say to Nelson that to do our duty – as England expects – we need some sort of commitment about getting that new crockery in the Wardroom?”

            “Yes, tonight is cards night in the Wardroom, does Lord Nelson know this?”

            Then the assembled officers would await the reply, standing in their blue frock coats at the Quarterdeck Rail, as the British fleet approached the French and Spanish Line.  The signal would come back from the Victory.

            “He is quite determined that the battle should happen today, Captain,” would say the signalling lieutenant. “What is the reply, sir?”

            “Tell him...” and there would be a pause as Fremantle looked for the mot juste, those words of escape, “Tell him the Neptune will take appropriate actions, as necessary.”


Jenna Muiderman