Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
What is a 'Ratcatcher?'

The term [ratcatcher] appears to have been in currency at the time of the First World War. It is best defined by the characteristics that a ratcatcher may (or may not) possess.

A ratcatcher is prepared to take orders from the behavior of the enemy. They are eager to work from the boss's known objectives rather than from their last order. It helps if they have a boss who is tolerant of informed initiative and equips their subordinates to take responsibility.

To be a ratcatcher is to take risks with your (peacetime) career. But it is much harder to be a boss who nurtures ratcatchers under them. If you are minded to run your command as a jazz band (very necessary if there is any chance your communications links may be disrupted) you must educate your juniors in your doctrine and priorities, and you must lift from their shoulders the fear of making well-meaning mistakes that might be career-defining. They must know that any well-meant decision will not be seized upon as a means of thinning out the captains' list.

In July 1940, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney was patrolling 100 miles away from where she had been ordered. She intercepted and sank an Italian cruiser (Battle of Cape Spada). Adm. Cunningham asked Capt. John Collins why he had been in the wrong place. He said, "Sir, I was guided by providence." Cunningham replied, "Well, you may continue to take your orders from providence." That takes a big admiral!


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Adm. Sir John Jervis said virtually the same to Commodore Nelson after the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, when Nelson quit the British line without orders to cut off a Spanish escape. Others, among Jervis's juniors, thought Nelson should have been court-martialed.

The real question for the boss of regulators and potential ratcatchers is: how would my forces continue to operate if my communications and computer linkages went down; if I, as conductor, couldn't talk to my ships for a while?

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