The role of the capital ship in naval strategy

DR TIM BENBOW

It is remarkable how often the role of the capital ship in naval warfare is misunderstood or even ignored. Too often it is dismissed as an expensive and vulnerable luxury, which exists only to flatter the egos of Admirals. Such comments display a striking lack of awareness about naval warfare and how it differs from fighting on land – in particular, the different ways in which it contributes to the military and political goals of strategy more broadly. My chapter in the recently published festschrift to Professor John Hattendorf considered this subject, looking in particular at the Royal Navy during the period from the Second World War to the early 1950s.

Not all of the coverage of the recent centenary of the Battle of Jutland displayed a strong grasp of what capital ships were for. One particularly egregious piece in the Times by a retired Army officer even made the remarkable claim that Germany drew lessons from the First World War that led it not to build battleships for the Second, only pocket battleships. It is a little surprising that the good Brigadier is unaware of the Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – or, apparently, of how British strategy countered them.

Up to the Second World War (when it began to broaden with the emergence of the aircraft carrier) the role of the capital ship in naval strategy was the fundamental one of countering the capital ships of the enemy. Doing so would ideally take the form of sinking them but since the enemy often declined to cooperate by giving battle in unfavourable circumstances, it tended to require a blockade to neutralise them – which might in itself help to provoke a series of engagements that would cumulatively have a decisive effect. But countering the enemy fleet was never an end in its own right, or a campaign with solely naval implications; it was a means to the broader objective of securing the ability to use the sea for whatever military, economic or diplomatic purposes that national strategy might require. Neutralising the enemy battlefleet established the conditions for other, smaller and less powerful vessels to perform their respective roles in defending and interdicting trade, and conducting or preventing amphibious operations. The flotilla could not operate without the capital ships.

During the two world wars, the escort vessels protecting merchant shipping against U-boat attack were able to do so only because the Grand Fleet and then the Home Fleet were ensuring that they did not also have to face German capital ships. In the First World War, the lack of a major naval battle after Jutland was itself an indication of the success of the Grand Fleet in achieving its strategic aim; the German High Sea Fleet was prevented both from interfering with British shipping and also, simultaneously, from challenging the British blockade that was strangling Germany’s ability to sustain the war. Operating in the North Sea, or ready in its bases, the Grand Fleet was providing cover for every convoy and merchant ship at sea, as well as for every cruiser enforcing the blockade. It was thereby providing hugely influential, albeit indirect and distant, support for the forces fighting on the continent.

Much the same was true in the Second World War. The struggle to protect shipping was the longest and arguably the most challenging campaign for the Allies, as well as being fundamental to their ability to conduct any other campaign at sea, or on land or in the air. It involved not only defending convoys against U-boats and air attack, but also preventing the powerful German surface fleet from getting out into the Atlantic, where it would overwhelm the escorts. Once again, this key requisite for Allied use of the sea, which was itself the precondition for pretty much anything else they wanted to do (which the Bomber Barons, among others, were wont to overlook), was achieved by capital ships. It was primarily battleships and aircraft carriers working together, the new capital ship team, that countered the powerful German surface fleet. Without them, neither escorts nor land-based aircraft would have been able to make their own enormous and essential contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic.

A debate to be held at a forthcoming history festival on the subject of ‘who sunk the Tirpitz?’ will no doubt be fascinating. However, from the strategic perspective, the question of precisely which RAF squadron finally put this crippled, marginalised warship out of its misery in the closing months of the war is less significant than how it was contained and neutralised over the previous three and a half years. The answer here is, first and foremost, capital ships: Germany perceived the threat from the combination of British battleships and carriers as so serious – understandably, since it had sunk Bismarck – that following a narrow escape by Tirpitz from a Fleet Air Arm strike in March 1942, Hitler prohibited her from going to sea if a British carrier was known to be at large. This key asset subsequently undertook only three more operational sorties. Challenging as the Battle of the Atlantic was, it would have become impossible had Germany’s fast capital ships been able to join in – as demonstrated by the fate of the Britain-to-Russia convoy PQ17: fearing the proximity of a German battleship that would overwhelm the light forces escorting the convoy, it was ordered to scatter, resulting in the merchant ships being picked off by U-boats and air attack.

What applied particularly to the protection of shipping was also true for defence against invasion, and for supporting amphibious operations. It is sometimes suggested that the Royal Navy would have struggled to defend Britain against German invasion in 1940 because of the purported vulnerability of capital ships to air attack. Leaving aside that the Luftwaffe had little ability to attack moving warships in summer 1940, this argument overlooks the fact that the defence would have been conducted by destroyers and other smaller vessels. The role of the capital ships would have been to hold off their German counterparts, creating the space for lighter British forces to wipe out the German transports. When the boot was on the other foot, with Operation Neptune in June 1944, capital ships again had a pivotal role. While several battleships were performing their secondary role of providing fire support for the assault and carriers had a range of roles in direct or indirect support of the operation, the German surface fleet remained a key consideration. It could potentially have put to sea a force including one battleship, two pocket battleships and two heavy cruisers, supported by light cruisers and destroyers. If such a force had steamed for the Channel, it would have been countered by Operation Hermetic, with a force comprising the battleships and cruisers providing fire support off the Normandy beaches. Alternatively, if it had headed for the Atlantic to disrupt shipping, it would have been intercepted by the British Home Fleet, including two fleet carriers and three battleships, based at Scapa Flow. They thereby provided distant cover for the forces conducting the D-Day landings, while also supporting the deception campaign and attacking enemy shipping.

In each of these cases, in both world wars, the activities of destroyers and corvettes protecting shipping, cruisers maintaining an economic blockade, and amphibious vessels conducting a landing, were only possible because of the conditions created by capital ships. This interdependence is apt to be misunderstood, and a false dichotomy drawn between capital ships and smaller warships, because their activities are often separated by far greater distance or time than is the case with land or air operations. The activities of the different components of naval power are closely inter-connected and mutually supporting even though they might be operating half an ocean away from each other or several months apart. Suggesting that escorts or corvettes suffice without the backing of capital ships thereby quite fails to grasp the realities of naval warfare. Commentators who make such arguments would no doubt object to any suggestion that infantry could do without armour, artillery or air support; the error would be much the same – although in land warfare, the different elements of the combined arms team operate in closer proximity both geographically and chronologically. Some critics of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers might ponder this before proposing that the Navy should be limited to some kind of ‘snatch corvette’. No doubt these alone could conduct some useful activities but they could not do all that is required of naval power any more than light infantry alone could accomplish every role in the land environment.

The role of capital ships is often to prevent something unfavourable happening, which makes it easy to overlook their importance. This role has broadened considerably from the Second World War onwards, not least with the strike capability of carriers giving them huge direct impact ashore. However, their key purpose is much the same today as it was in Nelson’s time and in the two world wars: they ensure conditions that permit other naval (and, indeed, land and air) forces to perform their respective roles. Capital ships secure the use of the sea, other forces exploit it.

Image: HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth after the Falklands War, via wikimedia commons.

4 thoughts on “The role of the capital ship in naval strategy

  1. But it’s all about C3, the command and control communications between sea (surface and subsurface) land and air assets, to coordinate and allocate units and resources based on strategy and intelligence to deal with threats and to delegate responsibility to forces as appropriate to complete tactics

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  2. Tim, as always, a good, challenging read. I remember being taught (perhaps at Dartmouth, but I probably wasn’t paying much attention) that a capital ship was one around which the fleet’s tactics were based. Size, therefore, was not the deciding factor. It is interesting that most dictionary definitions seem to take the easy way out and describe a capital ship simply as ‘large’.

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