Germany: Efficient Footballers, Admirable Admirals
One thing football commentators happily agree on is that the German team plays an efficient game. That Germans are efficient, precise and reliable is a deep part of a stereotype that we cling to in this country. They eschew anything that is ‘fancy’ or done for mere effect. How true all this is I do not know but it really was true about one of their greatest admirals: Franz von Hipper (1863-1932).
Even by German standards Hipper was seen as being too focused, preferring always to concentrate on the success of his ships rather than the niceties of naval politics. His rigid self-discipline perhaps came from his Catholic upbringing – he attended a Catholic school and remained a committed worshipper all his life. It was said that he always subscribed to the motto ‘Habit first and pleasure afterwards!’ and never slept when his ships were at sea.
On Hipper’s way up through the ranks report after report commented on his ‘excellent work’ or his bringing a ship to a high level of combat effectiveness. Such was his dedication to efficiency that, against the odds, Hipper became a rear-admiral in 1911 without ever appearing in the ministry or admiral buildings.
The names of John Jellicoe and David Beatty were familiar in Britain for many years, while few people could recall who Hipper was. Yet he stood head and shoulders above the timid and uninspiring Jellicoe or the reckless and vain Beatty. Both British admirals easily fit our own heroic moulds, Jellicoe being the quiet, determined and un-showy type, while Beatty exemplified the casual amateur who would not sink to taking his job too seriously.
Hipper, on the other hand, was all that British military leaders strived not to be. He trained his men ceaselessly, he sought battle at every opportunity, he studied each action and drew up lessons to be learned. He avoided all social occasions to the point of being seen as aloof. So dedicated was he to his command that he never once took time off to visit the naval headquarters during the First World War.
It is not surprising then that in early 1915 there were two high-level attempts to relieve him of his command. Yet he survived and his dedication to efficiency paid off at the Battle of Jutland where the great clash between his battlecruisers and those of Beatty took place. Beatty – aided by a flag lieutenant who was even more amateur than his commander – was soundly thrashed by Hipper the technician.
It is safe to say that Hipper was the only truly great admiral in the First World War. And, in part, that greatness was due to characteristics that are still shared by today’s German footballers.
For more on the history of football see our ebook, The Great Game.
Richard Freeman is author of Great Naval Commanders of the Great War
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