War at Sea 1914-1945


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This concern was also reflected in the conference agenda. The question of trade defence was raised, albeit unintentionally, by Sir George Warrender, the vice-admiral commanding the Second Battle Squadron. Following this abrupt change of subject, several pages were then devoted to the nature and magnitude of the German threat as well as to a detailed exposition of the means by which it could be stopped.

What remained was a concise and hard-hitting summary outlining in brutal terms the extent of the German menace to British commerce. At the end of May, Webb had submitted to the Operations Division of the War Staff a detailed memorandum outlining his fears about the impact of an early assault by German maritime sources on British shipping. Past precedents ranging from the actions of French privateers in the Napoleonic wars to the commerce raids of the CSS Alabama in the American Civil War were introduced in order to argue that this kind of assault would be tricky to counter.

Reinforcing this assessment was a summary of the results of a recent strategic exercise conducted at the Naval War College. Of course, one could argue that, in focusing on the threat from surface raiders, the Admiralty identified a general danger while failing to anticipate the specific problem. While that may be true, it would have required a remarkable gift for prophecy to have foreseen a use for submarines, namely attacking merchant shipping without warning, which was at that stage not even a component of official German naval thinking.

It also ignores the fact that German surface raiders did represent a real threat. Over , tons of British shipping was lost to them during the conflict, a total sufficient to induce British planners to anticipate a renewed campaign with some trepidation in the years preceding the Second World War. To take the war plan as an example, it called for the deployment of the best British destroyers off the German North Sea littoral, where they would mount an observational blockade of the German coast.

The purpose of this blockade, which was backed by lines of cruisers and armoured cruisers, was not primarily an economic one—although the benefits of cutting Germany off from global trade were obvious and greeted by the Admiralty as a welcome side effect—but rather the gathering of operational intelligence. Should such a move take place, there would be two British fleets, one based in Scotland and one based between the Channel and the Wash, ready to intercept the emerging German forces and give battle.

There was no way for German forces to reach it without being met in battle and defeated by at least one superior British fleet. However, in May , with the increasing threat to naval forces in the blockade lines from submarines, mines and torpedoes, and fears growing of prohibitive losses from such sources, the decision was taken to pull back the observation lines from the German coast. While this naturally reduced the exposure of British units to underwater attack, it also created a problem: how would the Navy now get warning of the German fleet having left port to mount a raid or invasion of the British Isles in time to head off that threat?

One suggestion was to deploy a cruiser cordon in the mid-North Sea region that would act as an early warning system.

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Unfortunately, when tested in manoeuvres in and , this method simply did not work. On both occasions, the side playing the Germans managed to land forces on the British coast without the alarm being raised and without serious interference. Put starkly, on its current plans, it could not guarantee to protect the British Isles because it would not necessarily know if or when the Germans had put to sea or where they were heading if they had done so. A solution to this intelligence gap, as the citizens of Scarborough would soon be able to affirm to their cost, was desperately needed.

However, not only was this not always the case, but such a bountiful harvest of code books could hardly have been counted upon in advance of the war and it is, therefore, far from surprising that addressing the North Sea problem was seen as a pressing issue by those flag officers of the Home Fleets asked in May to proffer topics for discussion at a forthcoming conference.

Accordingly, no less than 30 per cent of the questions submitted were directly related to this topic, the importance and urgency of which was thereby substantially underscored. However, at some point in the second week of July several of them were suddenly struck from the programme. These included several questions about the east coast anchorages that would be used in wartime with particular reference to the strength of fixed defences, the sufficiency of berthing and the adequacy of the stocks of fuel available for immediate operations.

Judging by the questions raised, the existing preparations at Rosyth, Scapa Flow, the Humber and Harwich were all a matter of the utmost concern in the fleet, with a general sense that home forces were not in possession of adequate bases for exercising control over the North Sea. Consequently, these agenda items would doubtless have led to a lively and useful discussion. Quite why they were axed, and at a time so close to the actual conference date, remains unclear, although the suspicion is hard to escape that the Admiralty in general and Churchill in particular might not have been eager to give extensive coverage to a topic that would inevitably shine a spotlight on the inadequacy of the measures they had taken over several years to address the matter.

However, even with the removal of these topics, there were still numerous other issues raised in relation both to the difficulty of denying the Germans unfettered access to the North Sea and to the search for a means to address this problem. One obvious solution, which was put on the agenda by the indefatigable Cecil Burney, was the possible reimposition of a close blockade. It is also notable in this regard that a possible solution that was being actively explored at the time—namely, seizing a German North Sea island as an advanced base for blockade operations—was not placed on the agenda, even though Churchill was a strong proponent of the idea and the officer in charge of the committee examining this possibility, Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, was due to attend the conference.

The thrust of several other questions, however, showed that there was some consensus if not about the solution to the North Sea problem then at least about where the solution might be found. The main area of focus, suggested by several officers, was the battle cruiser. Three similar questions about this warship type were tabled for the conference.

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The relationship between these topics and the North Sea problem, if not always evident from their wording, was immediately apparent from the accompanying documentation. If the North Sea problem was the reason for a detailed evaluation of the role of battle cruisers, it remained to be seen how they could provide a solution.

There was, however, a considerable element of chance in such a policy—what if the German force was not encountered? The alternative suggestion was to stiffen the cruiser cordon. The only vessels able to do this were battle cruisers.

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In the past, Royal Navy battle cruisers deployed in the North Sea had been grouped together in homogeneous squadrons, the idea being that these squadrons could be vectored en masse to any point in the cruiser cordon that came under attack from heavier German forces. However, if the battle cruiser squadrons were split up and pairs of battle cruisers were sent to operate with groups of light cruisers in mixed squadrons, this problem might be obviated. Any watching patrol that the Germans encountered would already have fast heavy supports that could either defeat the attacking forces or, if too strong, cover the retreat of the light cruisers.

The creation of such mixed squadrons was, in fact, Admiralty policy and was scheduled to be put into effect when Beatty relinquished his command in So, which to choose? Thus, on the eve of conflict, it was evident that the naval leadership had given considerable thought to the difficulties of war against Germany in the North Sea.

War at Sea 1914-1945

Admittedly, given the nature of the problem, they had little choice but to take it seriously. This did not, of course, mean that there was full agreement, but the lines of future policy were in place. Similarly, the idea of powerful mixed cruiser squadrons patrolling the North Sea to provide operational intelligence of German movements was also due to come into effect, albeit without much certainty as to its effectiveness.

These proposed solutions, it should be said, do not correspond to several of those that have been suggested in the historiography. However, as can be seen, this was clearly not the case.

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Also difficult to sustain is the suggestion of Nicholas Lambert that the Navy was coherently planning for regular operations in the North Sea but intended to give up on fleet work in favour of flooding this theatre with destroyers and submarines. The Royal Navy of has been described over the years as unimaginative, reluctant to embrace changing circumstances and a slave to tradition.

Perceptions of a lacklustre performance in the First World War have reinforced this verdict. Particular charges have been levelled, because of the Battle of Jutland, at its rigid command structure and initiative-sapping procedures. Likewise, the failure to deal effectively with U-boats in has also led to the accusation that it failed to take new technologies and the challenge of trade defence seriously. If the proposed agenda for the Spithead later Portland Conference is anything to go by, whatever might have been the subsequent difficulties of execution under the stresses of an intense wartime setting, there was no lack of thinking about the problems of future warfare in the Royal Navy.

Flag officers were well aware of many of the challenges that lay ahead and were quite willing and able to conceive of new solutions to them. For this reason, there was no resistance either to embracing change or to taking forward technical, materiel and tactical improvements. Indeed, all were accepted enthusiastically. Similarly, as the very open debate on the most appropriate form of command and control illustrates, the culture of leadership was not beset by systemic and in-built rigidity.

Had the conference not been prevented from taking place by the outbreak of war, we might be able today to study minutes of the discussions and assess the range of views. Yet, even from the existing agenda and the background papers that survive, it is clear that in the Royal Navy was a service that was systematically preparing for the task ahead. The significance of this is threefold.

First, it is evident that the Royal Navy, notwithstanding the fact that it was slow to establish a formal structure for staff work, should not be characterised as unreflective, a charge which, as we have seen, still exists in the current general literature on military effectiveness. Secondly, the nature of the problems that naval leaders sought to highlight and the priorities they established in regard to the need for solutions sheds an interesting light on the current historiography of British naval policy. Technological developments were certainly identified and absorbed, but this process was conducted within the existing strategic framework.

The Cabinet had complete freedom to do as it wished and it sent the Army to fight. One possible answer is that the Navy, for all its professionalism, was poor at conveying alternative options to the government. Much had changed in terms of Admiralty organisation and planning since that time. Nevertheless, despite succeeding reasonably well in preparing itself for a war in the North Sea against Germany, the Navy was evidently not always successful at communicating that fact to the requisite degree to the government, probably because, as the Spithead agenda shows, numerous questions remained to which certain and definitive answers were lacking.

By contrast, the Army General Staff, for all the gaps in its strategic reasoning, was a body good at conveying certainties. Thus, despite never actually preparing a continental army, it was able, when it counted in August , to sell to the government a continental strategy and put it into practice. The Spithead conference might have gone some way to redressing this, providing clear and consistent answers to difficult operational questions and so enabling the Navy to offer certain policies.

As it never took place this did not occur, and in August it was only the General Staff that could offer a supposed silver bullet. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Sign In or Create an Account. Sign In.


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