Who's Who - Sir Frederick Sturdee

Sir Frederick Sturdee Sir Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee (1859-1925) was one of the First World War's lucky naval commanders.  Despite an early setback at the start of the war that might easily have brought an early end to his war career, he was afforded a second chance that, by great fortune, worked to his advantage.

Born into a naval family at Kent on 9 June 1859 the eldest son of Captain Frederick Sturdee, Frederick Sturdee was educated at the Royal Naval School at New Cross before entering the Britannia as a cadet at the age of 12 in July 1871.

Two years later he passed out as a midshipman where he served until 1878 in the Channel squadron on the East Indies station.  That same year he was promoted Sub-Lieutenant in June, upon which he served two years in Portsmouth learning gunnery techniques on board the Excellent.

Promoted full lieutenant in May 1880, Sturdee spent much of 1881 and 1882 in the Mediterranean where he took part in operations at Alexandria in 1882, for which he received the Gold medal and Bronze star.

By now excelling in the field of gunnery, Sturdee devoted the following three years, until December 1885, to the Vernon torpedo school, establishing himself as a noted torpedo officer.

After a three and a half year stint as torpedo lieutenant on the Bellerophon on the North American and West Indies station, he spent the years from 1889-93 back at the Vernon torpedo school, where he served on the staff, working mostly with torpedo boats.

Promoted Commander in June 1893 Sturdee served at the Admiralty in London until 1897 in the ordnance department as a torpedo specialist.

In late 1897 he took command of the Porpoise on the Australian station, thereafter assuming command of the Samoan force in the summer of 1899 during the German-U.S. dispute.  He was subsequently awarded the CMG for his handling of the Samoan situation and received a promotion to Captain.

Back at the Admiralty, Sturdee this time took up a position as Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence, a role he held until until late 1902, when he resumed active service in home waters until he was appointed Lord Charles Beresford's Chief of Staff (Beresford was the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet).

After receiving a CVO in 1906 Sturdee returned to the Channel Fleet the following year, commanding HMS New Zealand, his last command before his promotion to flag rank.

In 1910 Sturdee was given charge of the First Battle Squadron, which he commanded for the next year.  In 1911 he chaired the Admiralty submarine committee before, in 1912, being given command of cruiser squadrons as the Senior Cruiser Admiral in the home fleet.

1913 was a successful year for Sturdee.  In June he was created KCB and in December promoted to Vice-Admiral.  The following July, in 1914, Sturdee was appointed Chief of the War Staff, reporting to the then First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenberg.

Widely regarded as ill-suited to his new role, Sturdee's tenure was short-lived.  With war underway the early humiliating setback at Coronel on 1 November (inflicted by Admiral von Spee) brought about Sturdee's replacement.

October 1914 saw the return of Admiral Fisher as First Sea Lord in the wake of Battenberg's resignation (chiefly owing to his German heritage and hounded out by the press).  Fisher's sweeping naval reforms had been opposed by Sturdee prior to the war, and Fisher was known to harbour no great opinion of Sturdee's abilities.  Sturdee's naval career appeared at an end.

However in the aftermath of Coronel Sturdee was thrown a life-line by Fisher.  He was handed command of a powerful task-force sent to find and destroy von Spee's commerce raiding squadron.  Sturdee's squadron included two modern, fast battle cruisers Inflexible and Invincible in addition to five other cruisers.

Sturdee's pursuit of Spee was somewhat ineffectual and lacked energy.  Having docked at the Falkland Islands in early December his squadron was re-coaling when von Spee's squadron itself appeared at the Falklands, there on a mission to bombard the islands.

Missing the golden opportunity of striking at the British force while still in port, Spee rapidly came to the conclusion that he was outnumbered and overpowered, and chose to flee.  However Sturdee's force had the legs of Spee's squadron and quickly brought the two fleets to action on 8 December 1914.

Sturdee destroyed all but one of Spee's ships: Spee himself went down with his flagship, Scharnhorst.  Sturdee's force suffered just five fatalities and sixteen more wounded; the Germans lost some 2,000 men drowned.

The scale of Sturdee's victory, fortunate though it was (and effectively handed to him on a plate), restored public confidence in the Royal Navy at home in Britain.  Sturdee was awarded a Baronetcy in January 1916 in recognition of his success.

More importantly the demolition of Spee's force severely dented German faith in the ability of their naval forces to meet with the British on equal terms; consequently, with the notable exception of Jutland, large-scale actions were avoided by both sides for the remainder of the war, although Germany was seen as having come off the worse of the two.

In February 1915 Sturdee took command of the Fourth Battle Squadron with the Grand Fleet, which he led at the Battle of Jutland in June 1916 under the overall command of Sir John Jellicoe.  Considered a strategic if not a tactical British victory, Jutland disappointed public and politicians alike at home.  Sturdee was thereafter a prominent critic of Jellicoe's conduct of the battle.

With Jellicoe's promotion to First Sea Lord in December 1916, his place as commander of the Grand Fleet was expected to go to Sturdee; indeed he was King George V's own nominee.  Nevertheless Sturdee was overlooked and the appointment went to Beatty instead.  Sturdee received no further wartime notable advancement.

Made Admiral in May 1917 Sturdee continued with the Fourth Battle Squadron until the following February when he was appointed Commander in Chief at the Nore, a position he maintained until 1921 when he was promoted Admiral of the Fleet and made GCB.

Following the war Sturdee succeeded Battenberg as President of the Society of Nautical Research and led the effort to restore Nelson's old flagship, Victory.

Sir Frederick Sturdee died at home in Camberley, Surrey, on 7 May 1925 at the age of 65.

Shrapnel comprised steel balls ejected from shells upon detonation.

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