Admiral Sir Reginald Hugh Spencer Bacon, KCB, KCVO, DSO (1863–1947) was an officer in the Royal Navy noted for his technical abilities who was described by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher, as the man "acknowledged to be the cleverest officer in the Navy".
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.
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. 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.
In 1899, while serving as a commander in the Mediterranean Fleet, Bacon met Admiral Fisher and was swiftly drawn into the circle of young officers employed by Fisher as an informal staff. Promoted to Captain in 1900, he left the Mediterranean Station and, thanks largely to Fisher's influence, was appointed first Inspecting Captain of Submarines and given the task of introducing and developing the Royal Navy's earliest submarine boats. The appointment singled Bacon out as a most promising officer. 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.
Bacon was well-qualified for his new posting, 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. He developed one of the first practical modern periscopes and produced an efficient submarine compass. 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.
Few of Bacon's contemporaries denied his brilliance, but many felt that he was also blinkered, arrogant, slow to acknowledge his mistakes, and a poor leader of men. 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".
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." 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"; 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."
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". 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".
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.
Bacon was the first captain of the battleship Dreadnought and was closely associated with Fisher, and public revelation of exchanges between the two led to what was tantamount to Bacon's dismissal from the service in 1909.
He retired from the Navy in 1909 as director of Naval Ordnance. From 1910 to 1914 he was managing director of the Coventry Ordnance Works. He returned to active service on the outbreak of World War I.
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.
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