Reginald Bacon

Sir Reginald Bacon

Reginald Bacon in 1915
Born (1863-09-06)6 September 1863
Wiggonholt, West Sussex
Died 9 June 1947(1947-06-09) (aged 83)
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1877–1909
Rank Admiral
Commands held Dover Patrol
HMS Dreadnought
HMS Hazard
Battles/wars Benin Expedition of 1897
First World War
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Distinguished Service Order

Admiral Sir Reginald Hugh Spencer Bacon, KCB, KCVO, DSO (6 September 1863 – 9 June 1947)[1] was an officer in the Royal Navy noted for his technical abilities. He was described by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher, as the man "acknowledged to be the cleverest officer in the Navy".[2]


Reginald was born at Wiggonholt in West Sussex, the son of the parish rector, Rev. Thomas Bacon, and his wife, Lavinia Emma, the daughter of George Shaw of Teignmouth in Devon. Rev. Thomas was the nephew of the industrialist, Anthony Bushby Bacon of Elcot Park in Berkshire and the grand-uncle of the historian, Emma Elizabeth Thoyts, of Sulhamstead House, also in Berkshire.

Early career

Reginald entered the Navy in 1877, qualified as a torpedo lieutenant, and first came to wider notice as commander of a flotilla of torpedo boats in the British naval manoeuvres of 1896.[3] In 1897 he served as a member of the British punitive expedition to Benin, and on his return from active service wrote the book Benin, the City of Blood (1897), describing the campaign.[4]

Promoted to captain in 1900, he left the Mediterranean Station and, was appointed to the new position of Inspecting Captain of Submarines and given the task of introducing and developing the Royal Navy's earliest submarine boats. In August 1901 came the accompanying appointment as captain of HMS Hazard, which had recently been converted into the world´s first submarine depot ship.[5] He was the acknowledged possessor of a fine technical brain, and Fisher's enthusiasm for his hardly hindered his career. That the Admiralty shared Fisher's impression of Bacon is evident not only in its decision to appoint so junior a captain to a comparatively senior position, but also in the laudatory minutes that attached themselves to Bacon's official reports.[6]

In early 1901 he was appointed by King Edward to take part in a special diplomatic mission to announce the King´s accession to the governments of Austria-Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey.[7]

Technical ability and character

Bacon was well-qualified for his new work with submarines, having served in the torpedo branch of the navy throughout the 1890s. He had spent several years on the staff of HMS Vernon, Britain's main torpedo school, and his character was dominated by a pronounced flair for things mechanical. Later in his career Bacon made a significant contribution to the design of the revolutionary all-big-gun battleship Dreadnought, developed siege guns for the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and mastered the technical complexities required to implement his proposal for a North Sea Mine Barrage. After his retirement, he settled down to write books with titles such as A Simple Guide to Wireless for All Whose Knowledge of Electricity is Childlike.[3]

Historian Mike Dash observes that while "there is no doubt that [his] mastery of the technology with which he dealt reinforced the independence of the submarine branch, he was a remote and stubborn centraliser who rarely admitted he needed help from anybody".[8]

Another trait which became increasingly significant in Bacon's naval career was "the unfortunate knack which [he] developed of polarising the opinions others held of him."[8] He was not, like his nemesis Roger Keyes, who succeeded him as both ICS and commander of the Dover Patrol, a friend to all men. To Maurice Hankey, during the war, Bacon was "the one officer with offensive spirit";[9] to the notoriously offensive-minded Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich Force, he was a worse enemy than the Germans, unwilling to take risks and "our bugbear... the Streaky One has obsessed everyone at the Admiralty and does exactly what he pleases with them... You will understand me when I say he is not a white man."[10]

Inspecting Captain of Submarines

According to biographer Michael Dash, "None of these controversies... should be allowed to obscure Bacon's early achievements as ICS, which were very considerable. To Bacon goes the credit of developing the semi-autonomous submarine branch that consistently performed well in peace and war. Equally important, his determined caution ensured that the branch was developed along sensible lines".[11] Bacon was acutely aware of the early shortcomings of underwater craft and "particularly emphasised" that he did not "commend rashness, in fact my life is spent in preaching caution... The only fear regarding the safety of the Boats is that familiarity may breed over-confidence". His philosophy was that "success belongs to the man who pays attention to infinite details".[11]

Bacon's chief contribution to the early development of the submarine was the design for HMS A1, the first British-designed boat and a significant advance over the earlier Holland Class boats. A1, developed by Bacon in conjunction with the naval architects of Messrs Vickers, Sons & Maxim, added a conning tower and a periscope to the pioneering design of the Irish-born American inventor John P. Holland, making her significantly more seaworthy and a more potent attacking threat. "While RN submarines retained Holland's ideas in outline... the specifics of the design from the A class onwards were essentially British", Dash writes. Bacon also played an important role in the design of the remainder of Britain's A-class submarines and worked out the first tactics for British boats.[12]

First Captain of HMS Dreadnought

Bacon was the first captain of the battleship HMS Dreadnought. In June 1906 he commissioned her for her trials and took her on a special cruise to the West Indies. In August 1907 he was appointed to the position of Director of Naval Ordnance succeeding Jellicoe.[13]

Coventry Ordnance Works

In November 1909 he retired as director of Naval Ordnance to take up the appointment of managing director of the Coventry Ordnance Works.[13]

He returned to active service on the outbreak of the First World War.

Commander of the Dover Patrol

Bacon became Commander-in-Chief, Dover and commander of the Dover Patrol in 1915 and was involved in the development of the North Sea Mine Barrage.

In his book 'Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914–1918,' Patrick Beesly was not complimentary of Bacon suggesting that his brilliance may have been marred by his fixation on a correct way of doing things, and of 'being convinced that he was the only man in the regiment who was marching in step.' Bacon insisted that the Dover Barrage was an effective block to German U-boats breaking out into the Atlantic despite reports from Naval Intelligence that U-boats were regularly passing through it under cover of darkness. After repeated refusals to illuminate the barrage at night, Bacon was instructed to do so by Rosslyn Wemyss following his replacement of Sir John Jellicoe as First Sea Lord. The discovery and destruction of a U-boat transiting the barrage took place the next night, and Bacon was sacked by Eric Campbell Geddes from command of the Dover Patrol, replaced by Roger Keyes, shortly thereafter.

Family and retirement

Bacon retired again shortly after leaving the Dover Patrol. He wrote numerous books, including biographies of John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe and his old mentor Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher.

He married Cicely Surtees of Darlington, County Durham in 1897. They had a daughter and two sons, both of whom died young, one as a soldier during the First World War and the other from pneumonia as a naval cadet in 1919. Bacon died on 9 June 1947 at home in Romsey, Hampshire.[14]

Published works

Further reading


  1. The Times, 10 June 1947.
  2. Mackay (1973), p. 297
  3. 1 2 Dash (1990), p. 157
  4. See a discussion Benin: The sack that was.
  5. "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36538). London. 20 August 1901. p. 9.
  6. Dash (1990), p. 15
  7. "The King – the special Embassies". The Times (36410). London. 23 March 1901. p. 12.
  8. 1 2 Dash (1990), p. 158
  9. Marder (1952), p. 201
  10. Halpern (1973), p. 376
  11. 1 2 Dash (1990), p. 159
  12. Dash (1990), pp. 105–106, 123–124, 174
  13. 1 2 The Director Of Naval Ordnance. The Times, Wednesday, Nov 24, 1909; pg. 9; Issue 39125
  14. "Adml. Sir Reginald Bacon (obituary)". The Times (50783). London. 10 June 1947. p. 6.


  • Dash, Michael (1990). British Submarine Policy 1853–1918 (PhD thesis). Department of War Studies, King's College London. 
  • Halpern, Paul (1973). The Keyes Papers. 1. London: Navy Records Society. 
  • Mackay, Ruddock F. (1973). Fisher of Kilverstone. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Marder, Arthur J. (1952). Portrait of An Admiral: the Life and Papers of Sir Herbert Richmond. London: J. Cape. 
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Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Horace Hood
Commander-in-Chief, Dover
Succeeded by
Sir Roger Keyes
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