Saving Our Own: A Paralysis of Initiative

The flag captain, finally acting on his own initiative in his bid to save the ship Victoria, ordered full astern on both propellers but it was already too late.June 23, 1893, was another clear and dazzling day in the Mediterranean. The British naval...


The flag captain, finally acting on his own initiative in his bid to save the ship Victoria, ordered full astern on both propellers but it was already too late.

June 23, 1893, was another clear and dazzling day in the Mediterranean. The British naval squadron was on summer maneuvers, traversing the coast, showing the flag in Egypt, Malta and various other ports. The eight battleships and three large cruisers had been in Beirut, Lebanon for five days and weighed anchor in the morning enroute to their next port of call, Tripoli.

Great Britain may have been a nation at peace but they ruled their vast dominions with a navy designed to project a sense of over-whelming power and invincibility. The Mediterranean, confluence of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the Dardanelles was in many respects, the strategic center of the universe for the empire. The command of the Mediterranean fleet was one of the most prestigious and important in the Royal Navy. It was reserved for senior leaders who had clearly demonstrated their ability to make decisions and to maintain a high state of readiness.

The fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon, a brilliant and dynamic officer and outstanding seaman. He was considered by many to be the best of the best but could also be overbearing and an iron disciplinarian. And, to make matters more complicated, he was virtually always correct. It was said by his fellow officers that he never took a false step until June 23.

Clear Communication
Tryon was known for his unorthodox approach to one of the most perplexing challenges posed by combat operations, including firefighting: communications. At the end of the 19th century, in the era before radio and radar, the fleet communicated by raising (and lowering) a series of flags which, because they were meant to be read in combination with one another, could have thousands of different meanings related to changes in course, speed and other tactical maneuvers. A signal raised by the flagship was to be answered quickly and precisely by others in the squadron before proceeding. The analogy would be a fireground commander issuing an initial coded radio command that would have to be affirmatively answered by every intended recipient which would then result in the commander giving the actual command to execute the order.

Tryon found this system to be cumbersome, slow and ineffective, as indeed it was, especially when it was needed most, as the fleet was maneuvering in battle. He proposed, and then implemented a radical departure from the centuries old flag system and he called it "TA". When Tryon raised a single flag indicating that TA was in effect, ships in his fleet were to follow the flagship's (or other designated leader's) movements without waiting for or acknowledging further signals, until otherwise advised. Now, similar to fireground standard operating procedures, the naval officers were empowered to take actions consistent with the intention of the fleet commander.

Tryon's way of practicing this system and to keep the fleet on its toes when they were on routine exercises was to constantly, and without warning, engage in complex maneuvers while providing minimum guidance beforehand. In fact, while his TA system was in effect he would also continue to issue a series of complicated orders via the traditional flag system. He expected his fleet officers to obey these signals immediately and without question.

An analogy might be a fireground commander who simultaneously encourages a degree of flexibility during an incident while also expecting companies to adhere closely to operating procedures even as he or she is not averse to ordering actions that deviate from those very procedures. If the incident commander is a strong leader with an impressive track record it is a recipe for confusion and (possibly) disaster. Tryon was the strongest of leaders and his officers deferred to his leadership. He had effectively created a situation where he was unlikely to get critical feedback when it mattered the most.

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