Chatfield, Alfred Ernle Montacute, first Baron Chatfield 1873-1967, admiral of the fleet, was born in Southsea 27 September 1873, the fourth child and only son of Admiral Alfred John Chatfield and his wife, Louisa, eldest daughter of Thomas Faulconer, of Hampstead. Much of his early childhood was spent in naval circles, first in Malta when his father commanded Thunderer in the Mediterranean Fleet and later at Devonport and Pembroke Dock during the years that his father held shore appointments in those establishments. He was educated at St. Andrew's School, Tenby, and in 1886 passed the examination for entry into the Britannia, joining her at Dartmouth a few days before his thirteenth birthday. On passing out in 1888 he joined the Iron Duke, a barque-rigged battleship in the Channel Fleet, and a few months later was appointed to the Cleopatra, a new corvette bound for the South American station. She also was square-rigged with auxiliary steam engines and during the young Chatfield's early years in the navy he had much experience of sail and sail drill. Fortunately it did not last long enough to indoctrinate him into the diehard resistance to change which so dominated the Royal Navy of the late nineteenth century.
As a lieutenant Chatfield specialized in gunnery during a period when the need for developing a modern navy suitable to the times was widely recognized as paramount, and when the specialist, particularly in gunnery and torpedoes, was usually starred for advancement. In 1899, when he took up his first sea-going appointment as a gunnery specialist in the Caesar, the navy was undergoing a long overdue surge of feeling towards modern appliances and modern techniques. Stimulated by the advanced naval doctrines of Sir John (later Lord) Fisher [qv.] and, particularly in the art and practice of gunnery by Captain (later Admiral Sir) Percy Scott [qv.], Chatfield was swept up in this surge and became an enthusiastic and, in his specialization, a brilliant supporter of any and every technical advance which could add to the efficiency of the navy. These were the years of the naval building competition with Germany, and the knowledge of a new navy building and training hard on the other side of the North Sea acted as a spur to most of the younger naval officers to dedicate themselves to their profession. Chatfield was undoubtedly one of these.
In 1909 he was promoted captain and appointed to command the Albemarle in the Atlantic Fleet, in which one of his fellow captains was David (later Admiral of the Fleet first Earl) Beatty [qv.]. He first became Beatty's flag captain in the Aboukir for six weeks during the maneuvres of 1912, and when Beatty was appointed in 1913 to command the battle-cruiser squadron, flying his flag in the Lion, he again took Chatfield with him as his flag captain with the additional responsibility of organizing and training the squadron in gunnery. Thus he took part in the three principal actions fought in the North Sea, those of Heligoland Bight (28 August 1914), Dogger Bank (24 January 1915), and Jutland (31 May 1916). The Lion was heavily hit both at the Dogger Bank and Jutland battles, sustaining considerable damage, due in part to the faulty distribution of fire of the battle-cruisers which in each action left a German opponent unengaged, a surprising lapse in a gunnery officer of Chatfield's calibre. Chatfield remained in the Lion until November 1916, when Beatty relieved Sir John (later Admiral of the Fleet first Earl) Jellicoe [qv.] as commander-in-chief, Grand Fleet, and again Chatfield went with him as flag captain and chief of staff first in the Iron Duke and later in the Queen Elizabeth.
After the war, in June 1919, Chatfield went to the Admiralty as fourth sea lord, becoming assistant chief of staff in February 1920, shortly after Beatty had taken up his appointment as first sea lord in November 1919. As such he had an important part to play in the negotiations for the Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armaments, the end result of the Washington conference of 1921-2. He had been promoted rear-admiral in August 1920 and, when Beatty left the conference in November 1921 to look after naval affairs at home, Chatfield became the senior naval delegate in Washington, a position which involved him in long technical discussions on the levels of armament and displacement of the future naval ships of all the maritime nations. This introduction to international and political negotiations on naval affairs, allied to his extensive experience of senior command at sea and of the administrative machine in the Admiralty, gave him an unrivalled background against which to build his future career. Already he had very clear views of the future shape and organization of the navy, and was clearly marked for promotion to high office.
After two years in command of the third cruiser squadron in the Mediterranean, Chatfield returned to the Admiralty in 1925 as third sea lord and controller of the navy, a position which he did not relish. As controller he was responsible for the material development and supply of the navy, whereas his chief interest lay more in organization and in tactical and strategical thought. At the same time it was a particularly difficult period, hedged in as it was by the limitations on size and armament agreed at the Washington conference, by the ten year rule laid down by the Treasury, on which all service estimates were to be based, and also hindered by various Treasury committees set up to enforce the deflationary fiscal policies of those years, and by severe disagreement with the United States over the number of cruisers required by Britain for the defence of the Empire. Chatfield was the main driving force in resisting American demands for a reduction in British cruiser strength, and it was his insistence, against strong Treasury and, indeed, Cabinet, opposition to his views, which finally won the day. He was, at the same time, brought into the unhappy dispute with the Air Ministry over control of the Fleet Air Arm, and also had to concern himself with the decision to build up Singapore as a defended naval base in the Far East. He remained controller for three and a half years, being promoted vice-admiral in 1926.
On leaving the Admiralty he hoisted his flag in 1929 in the Nelson as commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet, and a year later was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet, having in the meantime been promoted admiral (1930). He flew his flag in the Queen Elizabeth, the same ship in which he had ended the war of 1914-18 as Beatty's flag captain. During his two years in the Mediterranean as commander-in-chief he exercised the fleet many times in night fighting, filling a large gap in naval training the need for which had been demonstrated in 1916, when the German High Seas Fleet had been allowed to escape from possible destruction in the Battle of Jutland. Night fighting exercises had been first instituted in 1921, but in a desultory fashion, and it was largely as a result of Chatfield's enthusiasm in the Mediterranean that it took its proper and overdue place in fleet training. He also experimented with carriers and naval aircraft in an attempt to introduce a viable tactical doctrine for their use in battle; this had little success partly because of the low priority which was given to the development of the aircraft carrier and to naval aircraft under Air Ministry control.
In 1933, on the expiration of his term of command, Chatfield realized his great ambition by returning to the Admiralty as first sea lord. Since the limitations on naval shipbuilding imposed by the Washington and London (1930) treaties were due to expire in 1936, he set about preparing a new building programme which would restore the navy to something like the power it had formerly enjoyed before the cuts imposed on it had reduced its operational strength. At the same time, determined to rectify the weakness which his Mediterranean experiences in carrier and aircraft exercises had revealed, he renewed the battle with the Air Ministry for naval control of the Fleet Air Arm. In this he was successful when, in 1937, the Cabinet upheld the Admiralty's case.
As a gunnery specialist, Chatfield had always been a firm supporter of the battleship as the dominant weapon at sea, and there were those who feared, on his appointment as first sea lord, that too great a proportion of the money voted for naval rearmament would be spent on the construction of these expensive ships to the detriment of cruisers and, particularly, of destroyers and escort vessels. The experience gained in the U-boat campaign of the war of 1914-18, and the technical advances made in submarine construction and torpedoes since then, meant that there were many naval officers who considered that in the next war (a war which, during Chatfield's term of office, seemed increasingly likely to be fought against Hitler's Germany), the decisive battle would be fought against submarines in the Atlantic. Because of this, they felt that during naval rearmament priority should be given to the building of an adequate convoy escort force for anti-submarine warfare. In the event, a large programme of new battleship construction was authorized, and it was only after four years of war, and grievous losses of merchant tonnage, that the escort forces were at last able to assert a mastery over the U-boats. Nevertheless, the fact that the navy, throughout the first three years of the war, was able to meet and discharge the heavy commitments which it was called upon to undertake, though with very little to spare, was due largely to Chatfield's drive. His term of office as first sea lord was twice extended, and he left the Admiralty in August 1938, having been promoted admiral of the fleet in 1935 and raised to the peerage as first Baron Chatfield in the coronation honours list of 1937.
After leaving the Admiralty Chatfield served as chairman of the expert committee on Indian defence, and while still in India received an invitation from the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, to join the Cabinet as minister for co-ordination of defence, in succession to T. W. H. Inskip (later Viscount Caldecote) [qv.]. He started this work in Whitehall in February 1939 at a time when it was certain that war with a rearmed Germany could not be long delayed. He was sworn of the Privy Council on taking up the appointment, having been admitted to the Order of Merit in the previous month. But the essential pragmatism of politics was entirely foreign to one who had been brought up since youth to the decision-taking character of naval life, and he was constantly irked by his lack of power to press ahead in his own way with the rapid build-up, which war demanded, of the navy, army, and air force. As he himself wrote in his memoirs, when he found himself after the declaration of war a member of the War Cabinet, he was little more than a fifth wheel to the coach, but his malaise in political life went deeper than that. He was apt to be intolerant of politicians, perhaps not understanding that they, like him, also had their particular spheres of responsibility for which they were answerable to Parliament. His disillusionment with the political side of service life was also exacerbated by the fact that, although he was an admiral of the fleet, he now had no say in the chiefs of staff committee which, as first sea lord, he had grown used to dominate. He was asked to resign in March 1940 and his office was abolished. He then turned his undoubted abilities into less irksome occupations, of which the most important was the chairmanship of the committee on evacuation of casualties in London region hospitals.
Chatfield was one of the most able and dedicated naval officers of his generation, a man of great intellect, force of character, and complete integrity. In stature he was small, with little of the traditional look of an admiral about him, and he was austere with little sense of humour. He reached the top of his profession, deservedly, through hard work, an intense devotion to duty, and an unbending resolution to carry into effect the policies he considered necessary to transform the hidebound Grand Fleet of 1914-18 into the flexible instrument so ably used by the fleet commanders of 1939-45, a transformation as successful as it was necessary. He received many decorations and honours in his life, both British and foreign, which included honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge universities.
He married, in 1909, Lillian Emma St. John (died 1977), daughter of Major George L. Matthews, and had two daughters, one of whom died in 1943, and one son. He died at home at Farnham Common 15 November 1967 and was succeeded in the barony by his son, Ernle David Lewis (born 1917). There is a portrait of him by R. G. Eves in the National Portrait Gallery.
Lord Chatfield, The Navy and Defence, 1942, and It Might Happen Again, 1947 (these are two autobiographical volumes); Lord Chatfield, Defence After the War, 1944 (a pamphlet);
Cabinet Office papers;
Contributor: Peter Kemp