By Walter Burroughs
A recent edition of the Naval Historical Review (Vol 36 No 2 June 2015) contained an article, Winston Churchill and the Navy, addressing Churchill’s relationship with the navy generally and a number of prominent individuals. Not included amongst this number was Admiral Sir Percy Scott. This article attempts to rectify the injustice to this remarkable naval officer who in many respects was indebted Churchill while at the same time being a critic of Admiralty.
Percy Moreton Scott excelled at solving difficult problems, of which many examples were to be found in the immense and cumbersome Royal Navy he joined in the late 19th century. As a perceptive junior officer he observed very exacting training standards producing questionable results. Accordingly he sought to analyse these and implement improvements. In a tradition-borne service known for its conservatism and resistance to change he found little enthusiasm for his proposals.
Scott’s family had a long association with the Royal Navy but not through his father, a solicitor and linguist, whose foreign business, or the gaming tables, took him annually to Baden Baden. He encouraged his son in Latin and Greek which was of limited value when seeking a naval career. Young Percy Scott used the tried and trusted route by enlisting in the ‘crammer’ known as Eastman’s Naval Academy at Southsea, before sitting the entrance examination for a cadetship at the Britannia Naval College as a thirteen year old in 1866. A contemporary following the same path was William Creswell, who later became ‘the father of the Royal Australian Navy’. Scott’s college reports from this time indicate only average academic attainment, someone unlikely to reach future flag rank, but this might have more to do with an early interest in classics at the expense of mathematics and science – subjects at which he later excelled.
Father of Modern Gunnery
Percy Scott became ‘the father of modern gunnery’ principally through his invention of systems for faster loading of guns and direction finding giving improved accuracy. He also devised systems to improve signalling between ships.
As a young officer Scott was commended for gallantry against river pirates and selected for early promotion to Lieutenant. He was next posted for qualifying courses at the gunnery school, then centred on the 80 year old wooden-walled hulk HMS Excellent, moored off Whale Island. A colleague from this time remembers the 25 year old Scott as short and stocky but of athletic appearance with a fashionable goatee beard – altogether quite dapper.
As Whale Island was being extended through spoil from harbour excavations, using prison labour, Scott proposed draining the island and moving the gunnery school ashore into new purpose-built facilities. The proposal was rejected as being ridiculous.
After an extensive training cruise Scott returned to Excellent under the command of Captain John (Jackie) Fisher. Scott revised his plans for a new school which was supported by Fisher as he saw improved efficiencies. The plan was then approved by the Admiralty for early implementation. And so began a life-long association between these two men of kindred spirits. During Fisher’s tenure in command of Excellent,HRH Prince George of Wales, later HM King George V, undertook his Sub’s gunnery training. Scott was appointed as the Prince’s personal instructor leading to a useful friendship with the Royal family.
Scott, now Captain of HMS Terrible, and enroute to the China Station, was diverted to Durban to lend assistance to the army in the Boer War. He designed makeshift gun carriages for some of the ship’s guns so they could be employed ashore, and for searchlights to be installed on railway flatcars. These were manned by men from his ship who were credited with aiding the critical relief of Ladysmith. Here Scott gained international acclaim and for a time was appointed military commandant at Durban. Scott then continued to China and took part in the Boxer Rebellion where he again sent artillery and bluejackets ashore. On the China Station Scott again demonstrated that through rigorous drills remarkable improvements in naval gunnery results could be achieved measured in terms of target hits over increased speed of delivery and range of engagement.
Flying his Flag
In April 1904 he was appointed Captain of HMS Excellent and a year later promoted Rear Admiral. In 1907 he gained command of the 1st Cruiser Squadron, where he could put many of his ideas for improved gunnery performance into practice. Using his public relation skills Scott made gunnery exciting with even the Press involved in publishing Battle Practice scores. However he remained an outspoken ‘rogue’ figure and was critical of the Admiralty for not adopting measures he proposed, and went so far as to indirectly accuse the Admiralty of endangering the nation. He was a controversial man, not loved by all, but strongly supported by Admiral Fisher who was First Sea Lord from 1904 to1910 and another Fisher protégé, the highly respected Admiral Jellicoe.
His most notorious clash with authority occurred in 1907 when he was flying his flag in Good Hope. The Channel Fleet was at Portland and Lord Charles Beresford who was C-in-C made a signal that the annual gunnery exercises were suspended so that they could all ‘paint ship’ for a visit by the German Emperor. Scott asked if one of his cruisers, Roxburgh, could complete her firings. This was not approved so Scott signalled Roxburgh ‘Since paintwork seems to be more in demand than gunnery you had better come in and make yourself pretty’. This was later relayed to the Flagship and a most unholy row ensued in which the C-in-C asked the Admiralty to order Scott to strike his flag. This of course was not approved by Fisher.
The following year during fleet exercises Lord Beresford signalled two closely formed columns of the fleet to turn 180 degrees inward together. Scott, in command of one column, considered the manoeuvre dangerous, and refused to obey. Beresford sought to have Scott court-martialled. As a face-saving gesture the Admiralty removed their rebellious officer from his command and, when the dust settled, placed him out of harm’s way commanding a four-ship flag-waving cruise and promoted him Vice Admiral.
When Scott considered he was unfairly obstructed he was not beyond currying favour with the new First Lord. In 1912 he persuaded Churchill to order trials to be conducted between two similar battleships, one fitted with a director system that Scott proposed, and the other without. The results proved conclusively the superiority of the director system which was then installed in all Dreadnoughts but had not been completed at the time of Jutland.
Letter to the Press
His most famous cause célèbre occurred in June 1914 when following the publication of the 1914-1915 Naval Estimates, which had been delivered with great eloquence to the Parliament by Winston Churchill, Scott had a lengthy letter published in the Times of 5 June 1914,questioning the rationale concerning many estimates.
While this letter arose from a question addressed to Sir Percy Scott as to the number of battleships that should be included in the 1914-15 programme, this was possibly a ‘Dorothy Dixer.’ Scott had proposed using the Press with such a letter in late 1913, by which he hoped to influence opinion in favour of changing funding from the surface fleet to submarines. However he was persuaded to delay its release until after the next Naval Estimates being delivered by Churchill had been passed by the Parliament.
When the question was eventually made to Sir Percy he replied that the real question to settle before talking about building more battleships was: ‘Are they of use, or are they not?’ To this question, the Admiral gave an uncompromising reply in the negative. He said: ‘The introduction of vessels which swim under water has, in my opinion, entirely done away with the utility of the ships that swim on the top of the water.’ Sir Percy also explained the reasons that led him to this conclusion. The chief points of the letter are as follows:
The real question to settle before even talking about building more battleships is, ‘Are they of use, or are they not?’ The functions of a vessel of war were –
- To attack ships that come to bombard our ports.
- To attack ships that come to blockade us.
- To attack ships convoying a landing party.
- To attack the enemy’s fleet.
- To attack ships interfering with our commerce.
- To bombard an enemy’s ports.
- To blockade an enemy.
- To convoy a landing party.
- To attack the enemy’s fleet.
- To attack the enemy’s commerce.
The submarine renders 1, 2, and 3 impossible, as no man-of-war will dare to come even within sight of a coast that is adequately protected by submarines; therefore the functions of a battleship as regards 1, 2, and 3, both defensively and offensively, have disappeared. The fourth function of a battleship is to attack an enemy’s fleet, but there will be no fleet to attack, as it will not be safe for a fleet to put to sea. This has been demonstrated in all recent manoeuvres, both at home and abroad, where submarines have been employed.
If by submarines we close egress from the North Sea and Mediterranean, it is difficult to see how our commerce can be much interfered with. It has been suggested to me that submarines and aeroplanes could not stop egress from the Mediterranean, that a fleet would steam through at night. With aeroplanes that would report the approach of a fleet, and thirty or forty invisible submarines in the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, trying to pass through them at night would be a very risky operation.
The Navy will be entirely changed; naval officers will no longer live on the sea, but either above it or under it, and the strain on their system and nerves will be so great that a very lengthy period of service will not be advisable; it will be a Navy of youth, for we shall require nothing but boldness and daring. In wartime the scouting aeroplanes will always be high above on the look-out, and the submarines in constant readiness, as are the engines at a fire-station. If an enemy is sighted, the gong sounds, and the leash of a flotilla of submarines will be slipped. Whether it be night or day, fine or rough, they must go out to search for their quarry; if they find her she is doomed. Will any battleship expose herself to such a dead certainty of destruction? I say, No.
Not only is the open sea unsafe; a battleship is not immune from attack even in a closed harbour, for the so-called protecting boom at the entrance can easily be blown up. With a flotilla of submarines, commanded by dashing young officers, of whom we have plenty, I would undertake to get through any boom into any harbour and sink or materially damage all the ships in that harbour.
If a battleship is not safe either on the high seas or in harbour, what is the use of a battleship? What we require is an enormous fleet of submarines, airships, and aeroplanes, and a few cruisers, provided we can find a place to keep them in safety during wartime. I do not think that the importance of submarines has been fully recognised, neither do I think that it has been realised how completely their advent had revolutionised naval warfare. In my opinion, as the motor vehicle has driven the horse from the road, so has the submarine driven the battleship from the sea.
Obviously this letter caused the navy great concern and was widely derided by many in authority who considered the mischievous scares were ill advised. However the influential 1915 edition of The Fleet Annual and Navy Year Bookwas more circumspect and published a far-reaching article, The World’sSubmarines,which included a summary of Admiral Scott’s letter and made the following observation:
However much we may argue or disagree with the gallant Admiral (Scott) in his conclusions, we cannot but admit that the submarine, if it has not driven the battleship off the seas, has at least had an enormous effect on naval strategy, and it is quite safe to say that, but for submarine, the strategy of our own Grand Fleet would have been very different to what it has been. Whether the experience gained during this war will affect the future of the battleship the future alone can decide.
Taking their lead from Scott younger officers, ably supported by an enquiring press, was beginning to question Admiralty wisdom. Unrestricted submarine warfare that occurred during the latter stages of WWI had not been anticipated by the Royal Navy and it appeared unable to adequately respond to these changed circumstances other than through the introduction of defensive convoys. For a navy that prided itself on having full command of the high seas the German submarine threat seriously tested this assumption.
In 1913 Scott was persuaded to take early retirement to make way for younger men. In return he was promoted to full Admiral and created a baronet. Here he initially continued advocating the cause of improving the defence of surface ships from the threat of submarine attack.
In November 1914 Churchill reinstalled Fisher at the Admiralty. While still displaying flashes of enthusiasm and brilliance, Fisher, at nearly 74 years of age, quickly tired and could not keep pace with his domineering First Lord. It did not take Fisher long to have Scott once more beside him to turn his talents to producing a defence against the submarine menace. This eventually led to the development of the depth-charge used by both ship and aircraft. After differences with Churchill, his political master, Fisher finally left the Admiralty in May 1915. At this point and, without his mentor, Scott lost all authority.
Despite their differences, in January 1915 Churchill sent for Scott and offered him command of the Dardanelles Campaign. The naval campaign then only involved eliminating Turkish forts and proceeding to capture Constantinople. Scott, through his knowledge of naval training, considered the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet were operationally inadequate to perform the tasks required of them and declined the appointment. Scott was next employed in the defence of London against air attacks from Zeppelin airships. Here Scott’s ever inventive abilities were tested in the development of high-angle anti-aircraft guns.
Following the War in 1919 Scott began a further campaign against battleships which he viewed as obsolete being superseded by aircraft and submarines. This extended further to his opposition to building large scale facilities to accommodate capital ships such as the planned re-development of the Singapore Dockyard. His advocacy gave weight to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty which aimed to reduce the international arms race by limiting future naval construction. In a world wearied by war and taxation this Treaty received widespread public support.
Scott was married in 1893 to Teresa Dixon-Hartland. Three children resulted but the marriage ended in a scandalous divorce in 1911 as a result of the wife’s adultery. Scott remarried in 1914 but the relationship did nor endure. Tragedy was again to visit the family when their eldest son, Midshipman John Scott, was killed in action at the Battle of Jutland. While many of Scott’s inventions were belatedly and seemingly reluctantly accepted by the Admiralty, others were adopted and perfected by commercial interests. Scott however had the foresight to patent many of these and in later years gained financial independence from numerous royalties.
The inventive Naval Prophet died of a heart attack at his London home in 1924 when aged 71. His long-time friend and master Jackie Fisher had crossed the bar four years earlier. Scott thrived in solving difficult problems with Fisher ably supporting and encouraged his remarkable abilities. Many of his projects had an important influence on the development of naval warfare during the twentieth century. Percy Scott was born with an exquisite mind which could see into the future with many of his prophecies coming to fruition. Hopefully another naval prophet will arise to guide us through the twenty-first century.
Padfield, Peter, The Great Naval Race: The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry 1900-1914. London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974.
Roskill, Stephen, Churchill and the Admirals. London: Collins, 1977.
Scott, Percy, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy.London: John Murray, 1919.
Wells, Captain John G., Whaley – The Story of HMS Excellent 1830 to 1980. Portsmouth: HMS Excellent, 1980.
Yexley, Lionel (Ed), The Fleet Annual & Naval Year Book 1915.London: The Fleet Ltd, 1915.