Royal Navy

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2017 – the Year of the Royal Navy: time to get real?

Professor Andrew M Dorman and Professor Matthew R H Uttley

Centre for British Defence and Security Studies

As we entered 2017 the Ministry of Defence earmarked 2017 as the ‘year of the Royal Navy (RN)’. In the press release that accompanied the announcement key milestones for 2017 were highlighted, including the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Rosyth and commencing sea trials, the launch of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales and the fourth Astute-class SSN, the arrival in the UK of the first of four new Tide-class tankers and the opening of the first permanent RN base East of Suez in more than half a century.

This built on the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1). As part of Joint Force 2025, the RN would continue to maintain the continuous at sea deterrent with four new nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. The NSS/SDSR also pledged to bring into service both of the large aircraft carriers currently under construction in order to have ‘one available at all times’. The government also promised to bring forward the purchase of F-35B Lightning II aircraft so that there would be 24 aircraft available by 2023. Looking further ahead, the 2015 review committed the government to buy three new logistic ships to support the fleet, in addition to the four tankers that were due to have entered service from 2016. The government also confirmed that a fleet of 19 destroyers and frigates would be maintained with the hope that ‘by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers’ (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1).

Since then, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has confirmed ‘… that the expansion of the Royal Navy is fully funded’ (Oral Questions on defence 30 January 2017). Yet, behind this rosy façade, however, is a somewhat different picture. In the second half of 2016 the financial pressure on the RN’s budget had become evident. Over the summer, technical problems with the Type 45 destroyer’s power plant emerged leading to all the ships being temporarily moored alongside. In November 2016, it emerged that the Harpoon anti-ship missile would leave service in 2018 without a replacement in the near term rendering RN ships reliant on their deck guns until the Wildcat helicopters are equipped with an air to surface missile. Since Christmas the government has been plagued by revelations concerning the test of one of its Trident missiles last June.

Looking behind the veneer of the 2015 NSS/SDSR a whole series of other cutbacks are evident. The Landing Pad Helicopter (LPH) HMS Ocean is scheduled to leave service in 2018 without replacement. Instead, the second aircraft carrier will be equipped with some amphibious capability. The obvious question this raises is what happens if HMS Prince of Wales is fulfilling the strike carrier role and the government needs both a strike carrier and LPH? The pledge to bring forward the acquisition of the planned 138 F-35Bs so that 24 frontline aircraft would be available from 2023 sounds like a positive development for the RN. However, with each carrier capable of carrying 36 F-35Bs in the strike role, the planned frontline of 24 F-35Bs by 2023 leaves the UK dependent on the US Marine Corps to fill the deficit. Moreover, sustaining the planned Maritime Task Group will be hampered by delays in the delivery of the four new tankers and the continuing absence of an order for the promised three stores ships.

At the same time, the RN is beset with personnel challenges as the most recent personnel statistics have shown with shortages in a number of specialist areas(MoD 2017). As a consequence, the MoD has acknowledged that one of its frigates, HMS Lancaster, was being effectively mothballed pending a refit later this year. Similarly, as the LPD HMS Albion is brought out of reserve and refit her sister ship will be put into reserve ahead of a forthcoming refit. These factors suggest that the uplift of 400 in personnel numbers announced by the 2015 NSS/SDSR is insufficient to allow the RN to crew its existing ships, let alone ensure that one of the new aircraft carriers is always available. As a result, there are rumours that Royal marine numbers will be cut to free up posts for the dark blue element of the navy.

Personnel shortages only partially explain the decision not to restore the amphibious brigade capability taken as a cut in the 2015 review despite the growing fears expressed about Russia and the need to support the UK’s NATO partners. Instead, much of the amphibious capability is fulfilling other tasks in place of other ships. Thus, HMS Ocean is currently acting as the command ship for the US/UK deployment to the Gulf. At the same time, the RN has struggled to commit ships to the various NATO standing forces and some of its tasking is being gapped. Put simply, the RN appears simply too small for its mandated tasks but the government remains unwilling to acknowledge or address this.

One might be forgiven for holding out for the longer term. Before Christmas, Sir John Parker published his report designed to influence the forthcoming ‘National Shipbuilding Strategy’, which called for major changes and investment in the UK’s naval shipbuilding industry. Many of the recommendations appear sound, including gearing the new Type 31 frigate for export and seeking to break BAE Systems’ monopoly of the construction of major warships. Such recommendations are, however, strangely familiar: both the Type 23 frigate which the Type 31 will partially replace and the Upholder class of conventionally powered submarines were originally designed with the export market in mind in the 1980s. It is noteworthy that no foreign sales were achieved and the Upholders and three of the Type 23s were ultimately sold-second hand to Canada and Chile respectively. Moreover, if the government truly wants to implement a viable long-term national shipbuilding strategy, then it needs to bear in mind the life-cycle of its ships and how this will influence the RN’s force size. For example, a RAND study of the UK’s nuclear submarine industrial base concluded that to maintain the industry’s capacity a submarine needed to be ordered every two years (Schank 2005). If one assumes an average lifespan of 30 years then the submarine force needs to comprise some 15 boats. Currently the force comprises just four SSBNs and seven SSNs with no planned future increases.

Moreover, lurking in the background are question marks over the wider affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) overall Equipment Plan between now and 2026. The most recent edition was published in January 2017 and the financial risks contained within were highlighted in the accompanying National Audit Office report. Four risks stand out. First, previous iterations of the Equipment Plan had contained significant amounts of uncommitted ‘contingency’ funding to cover unforeseen programme cost increases and new requirements. This reserve has been almost entirely allocated to new programmes with the result that there is little flexibility in the budget despite the MoD’s extensive previous experience of unforeseen programme overruns and cost increases. Second, one of the results of the Brexit referendum vote has been a fall in the value of Sterling against both the US Dollar and Euro. Whilst the MoD has taken some mitigation steps, the January NAO report highlights that these ‘hedges’ will be insufficient unless the value of Sterling starts to rise. In particular, the significant cost of existing equipment orders in US dollars from the US – including the Boeing P8A Apache AH-64E, F-35B and successor missile compartment tube programmes – means that further cuts to the MoD’s equipment programme are almost certain. Third, the affordability of the Equipment Plan is predicated on a shift of funds from other areas of the defence budget. The risk here is that MoD assumptions that personnel costs will rise below the rate of inflation, significant income can be generated from the sale of assets and major efficiency savings can be achieved might prove overly optimistic. Indeed, failure to achieve the requisite savings in any of these areas could derail defence budgeting assumptions and, by implication, the future viability of the MoD’s Equipment Plan. Finally, the budget is predicated on a 1% real terms increase in defence spending for each of the next ten years. Ironically a similarly optimistic outlook was ultimately the undoing of the ill-fated 1981 Nott Review.

These factors, together with concerns over whether the UK’s GDP will continue to grow in the post-Brexit era, raises serious doubts about whether 2017 will be the ‘year of the Royal Navy’ or the nadir before which financial chickens finally come home to roost.

Image: HMS Arc Royal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested further reading

‘2017 is the Year of the Navy’, Ministry of Defence Press Release, 1 January 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/2017-is-the-year-of-the-navy

‘An Independent Report to inform the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy’, Ministry of Defence, 29 November 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/572532/UK_National_Shipbuilding_Strategy_report-FINAL-20161103.pdf

Cabinet Office, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, Cm.9,161, (London: TSO, 2016), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/555607/2015_Strategic_Defence_and_Security_Review.pdf

Ministry of Defence, ‘Royal Navy and Royal Marines Monthly Personnel Situation Report for 1 January 2017’, 9 February 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/590163/20170207_-_FINAL_-_RN_RM_Monthly_Situation_Report_January_2017-rounded.pdf

National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026’, HC.914, session 2016-17, (London: TSO, 2017), https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/The-Equipment-Plan-2016-2026.pdf

John F. Schank, Jessie Riposo, John Birkler, James Chiesa, ‘The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Volume 1’, Sustaining Design and Production Resources RAND, 2005), file:///C:/Users/Andrew%20Dorman/Downloads/RAND_MG326.1.pdf

SPORT & LEISURE DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 19867) A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter's Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195327

Sea Power, Alliances, and Diplomacy: British Naval Supremacy in the Great War Era

LOUIS HALEWOOD

Louis is a current DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History from the University of Calgary. Louis is co-organiser of the upcoming ‘Economic Warfare and the Sea’ Conference, to be held at All SoulS College in July 2017.

A recording of the talk this post is drawn from is available here.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the continued viability of NATO has raised questions about the relevance and utility of alliances in 21st century international politics. Who gains most from alliance structures and collective security? What are the benefits for a global power in leading alliances? These questions appear particularly pertinent with the end of the ‘American moment’ and the return to a degree of multipolarity in world affairs, where the rise of China and its aspirations of a blue water navy and an emboldened Russia are challenging the status quo with increasing regularity.

Fresh as they may appear, many of these issues have a long historical antecedence. At the start of the 20th century the British Empire faced a changing global environment – with rising powers on the Continent, in the Americas and in Asia – which forced statesmen to confront the dilemma of how to guarantee the security of Britain’s maritime empire without overstraining public finances on defence expenditure. The supremacy of the Royal Navy had ensured the safety of Britain’s dominions and colonies both through its physical might and as a symbol of prestige throughout the 19th century. However, with the rise of new naval powers, chiefly Imperial Germany across the North Sea, seeking local dominance in all theatres simultaneously would be needlessly expensive. Maintaining a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ might leave Britain vulnerable in secondary theatres as it was forced to out-build the German navy so to command home waters. Consequently, British statesmen turned to diplomacy to underwrite maritime security elsewhere, developing alliances and strategic alignment to tilt local balances in Britain’s favour, neutralising potential threats in the process.

The first move towards this was the alliance with Japan, first struck in 1902, and renewed in 1905 and 1911. This settled concerns in Whitehall over the threat to British possessions in the Far East, with Japan turning from potential danger to guardian of these interests. This was an important embarkation point as British statesmen began to explore the opportunities that such agreements presented.

Pressure to find a similar solution in European waters began to mount as the costs of winning the Anglo-German naval race soared. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, argued that Britain must prioritise a ratio of 60% superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, leaving little in the naval estimates for a Mediterranean fleet to protect this key imperial artery. The solution advanced was an accord with France (with whom ties had strengthened following the Anglo-French Entente, signed in 1904). The French navy could, with the support of a diminished British force, control the Mediterranean against a combination of Austria-Hungary and Italy, while the bulk of the Royal Navy took on the German navy in the North Sea.

Churchill’s predecessor at the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna had argued that Britain must spend whatever was necessary to give it domination in both seas without having to rely on France. However, this would require cuts to social programmes at home, which a Liberal government committed to welfare reform could not countenance. The Anglo-French naval agreement, signed in 1913, was therefore a means for securing British interests in the Mediterranean at minimal cost. It was not a sign of weakness: Britain was the senior partner in the agreement, giving little in return for the security of the Mediterranean (not least because it was not bound to supporting France in the event of war with Germany). Paris raised concerns over this imbalance, but made little headway.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, these arrangements came into play, and proved largely effective at safeguarding British maritime interests in the Far East and Mediterranean. The July Crisis demonstrated the limits of what British diplomacy and sea power could achieve: it was not able to prevent war from breaking out. Nevertheless, they did put Britain in a commanding position to wage war at sea: containing the battle fleets of the Central Powers, protecting British shipping, and enabling blockade to begin.

From 1914, Britain used its status as the world’s leading naval power to dominate the naval coalition, directing the maritime elements of the Entente’s strategy. It left the smaller issue of the Austro-Hungarian navy to France (joined by Italy in the Adriatic from spring 1915), while focusing on the more potent German threats in the North Sea and Atlantic. However, when Germany carried its underwater guerre de course into the Mediterranean as 1915 progressed, the Admiralty sought to develop an operational leadership role in this theatre too; partly for reasons of prestige, primarily to address the exigencies of war. Yet the Mediterranean was important to Paris and Rome for reasons of prestige as well – the source of many Franco-Italian disagreements – and their naval establishments prevented the Royal Navy from taking the reins entirely.

The United States Navy, on the other hand, was more content to act as an auxiliary in European waters once the U-boats had forced American entry into the war in 1917. While the White House was keen to work closely with the Admiralty at the operational level, however, there were problems when it came to long-term grand strategy. President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict; now that this was unavoidable he sought to maintain independence from London and Paris by becoming an associated, rather than allied, power. Moreover, the United States was engaged in a large programme of naval construction, which would produce a powerful battle fleet that might rival the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, wanted this suspended so that American shipyards could be directed to the construction of smaller craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare. Yet American leaders feared this would leave them vulnerable in the post-war world, so refused. Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, came up with a solution: a general naval alliance in which Britain would guarantee American security at sea while capital ship construction caught up. Moreover, Balfour worked on plans which would bring together the Allied navies (including France, Italy, Russia, and Japan) with the US under an umbrella agreement of mutual assistance against maritime attack lasting for four years after the conclusion of the war.

This was anathema to the White House, with Wilson unwilling to bind his hands. Nevertheless, this episode demonstrates the evolution of British strategic thinking on alliances and their utility. With Britain at the centre of a web of mutually supporting navies, of which the Royal Navy would be the greatest, its partners could help to extend the security of the empire, affording London potential auxiliaries in war and neutralising possible rivals. Of such future challengers, the United States – poised to assume second place in the naval rankings if Germany was defeated and disarmed – was the greatest. The prospect of an Anglo-American rivalry gathered pace as the U-boat threat receded and the Americans increased the pace of capital ship construction. Yet neither side wanted a costly naval arms race, and following victory in 1918 they soon found renewed common cause in the League of Nations project. The prospect of a post-war strategic alignment (if not a formal alliance) was on the table at Versailles in 1919. British and American diplomats managed to suppress the nascent competition between their sailors, with Robert Cecil of the Foreign Office and Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief lieutenant, reaching a compromise through which Britain could carefully manage the US’ rise as a naval power via bilateral talks. Meanwhile, Wilson was prepared to make a guarantee of French security with the British. A new world order was set to emerge, with an Anglo-American alignment at its centre (a dream which seemingly still resonates in Whitehall a century later).

Yet the gentleman’s agreement struck in Paris collapsed in Washington later that year. The result was that in 1921 the Lloyd George government had to negotiate in a multilateral environment at the Washington Naval Conference. While the decisions reached there allowed an Anglo-American agreement on the naval balance of power to be reached, the proposed strategic alignment could not be covered, and it was at a higher price than the one to be paid if the Cecil-House understanding had been implemented. One such cost was the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The potential benefits of that agreement was driven home two decades later when the Japanese ran riot across British possessions in the Fat East, dealing an irreversible blow to the integrity of the British Empire. Coming after two years of war against Nazi Germany, this defeat left Britain beleaguered and appeared to leave India open to the Japanese. Yet for the period 1939-41, the US had refrained from active military support for Britain. Alliances and strategic alignments, then, can offer significant benefits to global powers. To reject or lose them can have repercussions. Certainly, isolation rarely is a better alternative – a point worth remembering in the 21st century.

Featured image: A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter’s Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy), via the Imperial War Museum

THE SUEZ OPERATION OCTOBER - DECEMBER 1956 (A 33601) British Forces: Three of the five British aircraft carriers involved in the Suez operation. HMS EAGLE leads HMS BULWARK and HMS ALBION. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187820

SUEZ SIXTY YEARS ON: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ROYAL NAVY

This is the second in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

By Dr Tim Benbow

The Suez conflict provided many salutary lessons for British strategy and defence policy. The majority of these emerged from political, diplomatic and military failings associated with what was by common consensus the worst debacle in British foreign policy between 1945 and, perhaps, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Essentially, it provided a long list of things not to do, errors to avoid. However, some of the conclusions drawn were more positive, not least for Britain’s naval forces. The Suez crisis occurred at a critical point in an on-going debate over the role and capabilities of the Royal Navy, facilitating the emergence of a viable and important future role. In doing so, it resolved – for a time at least – a bitter and high-stakes dispute over the value of naval power in general and naval aviation in particular.

Since the early 1950s, the role of the Royal Navy and even of sea power more broadly had come under concerted attack in Whitehall. The Air Ministry pushed hard for a narrow focus on the early, nuclear stage of a total war with the USSR – for which, as it happened, the RAF’s cherished medium bomber force was well suited. This approach left little room for naval power; why seek to defend sea communications when the war would be settled quickly, by nuclear weapons? Some senior politicians and civil servants were convinced of the strategic logic of this case, while others went along with an approach that appeared to offer significant savings in defence spending. The Admiralty put up a spirited counter-case arguing that defence policy could not plan only for total war, let alone for only one form that such a war might take. Conventional forces, it insisted, including naval power, were an indispensable part of the deterrent to war; they would be essential to fighting any war if Britain was to survive; and they were vital for waging the cold war, which was bound to continue and even intensify as total war became less likely. The strategic logic of the Admiralty case was compelling but the financial implications were unpalatable; the Navy held on but only just and the assaults kept coming. Suez provided a much needed reality check.

First, it was a reminder that while deterring or fighting total war with the Soviet Union was bound to be the main focus for policy, it was not the only game in town. Britain and the West more broadly had interests around the world that were important in their own right, as well as having a potential connection to the cold war. Indeed, with a deliberate resort to war by the USSR being viewed as unlikely, preventing the outbreak of minor conflicts that could escalate became an important element of avoiding war. The Suez crisis both demonstrated the need for military intervention overseas and also shed a harsh light on existing British capabilities for such operations.

The second question concerned how such intervention should be conducted. Britain had hitherto relied on garrisons stationed overseas and on the use of air bases. These were expensive to maintain and as pillars of a strategy for intervention, they were being increasingly shaken by nationalism and decolonisation, resulting in the loss of bases or tight restrictions on their use. A potential ‘air barrier’ across the Middle East further complicated the British response to any crisis in the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Far East, reducing the utility of any UK-based strategic reserve. In response to these developments, the Admiralty was beginning to propose that the Royal Navy could take the lead ‘east of Suez’ with maritime task forces, based around carrier air power and amphibious capabilities, which would provide a stabilizing influence and a capacity for intervention. This vision appealed to those wanting a cheaper strategy as well as accommodating the reality of reducing access to overseas bases. It suited the Air Ministry which, focused on nuclear-armed bombers, was entirely content to see conventional, expeditionary air power fall primarily to the Fleet Air Arm. It also gave the Royal Navy a clear and viable role which attracted wider political support – at the same time as preserving capabilities that the Admiralty continued to see as essential for total war; hot war was de-emphasised in favour of warm and cold war.

This concept was circulating and gaining some support before the Suez crisis; the lessons of the intervention greatly strengthened the case for it. Previous British planning had rested on the wealth of air bases in the region, yet in the event Libya, Iraq and Jordan had denied the use of these to Britain. The Anglo-French force could only use Malta, from which only medium bombers could reach Suez, and overcrowded and potentially vulnerable bases on Cyprus. From the outset, it was obvious that the operation would have to depend heavily on carrier-based air power. The force deployed included the fleet carrier HMS Eagle and the light fleet carriers HMS Bulwark and Albion (rushed out of refit) plus the French Arromanches and Lafayette. These carriers provided over 60 per cent of the fighter-bombers for the operation (which proved more effective than the medium bombers), and carrier-based aircraft contributed over 65 per cent of the ground attack sorties. Their involvement was vital to gaining air superiority – even the Air Ministry accepted that Fleet Air Arm aircraft destroyed the majority of enemy aircraft – and to supporting the airborne and amphibious landings and the campaign on land that followed.

This striking vindication of the utility of carrier-based air power caused considerable discomfort to those in the Air Ministry who had devoted so much effort over the previous years to dismissing its utility. (While things have improved hugely in this area since the 1950s, there are still some echoes of this sentiment today: the history timeline on the RAF web site (http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/rafhistorytimeline195059.cfm)

says of Suez, ‘RAF Canberra and Valiant bombers flying from Malta and Cyprus, in conjunction with French Air Force aircraft, attack twelve airfields in the Canal Zone. Airfield attacks continued until 4 November, by which time the Egyptian Air Force had been decimated.’ The overlooking of carrier-based aircraft is rather glaring.)

One particularly positive development at Suez was a major innovation in amphibious warfare. In addition to conventional parachute drops and amphibious landings from the sea, the operation saw the first ever helicopter assault, when 45 Commando Royal Marines was landed by a joint helicopter force operating from the converted light carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. This brilliant improvisation by a rather cobbled together force indicated the way forward for amphibious operations.

The Suez experience vindicated the maritime task force concept, with both carrier strike and amphibious forces demonstrating their utility. As a result, the 1957 defence review made presence and limited intervention east of Suez the core role of the Royal Navy. That this review was overseen by Duncan Sandys, the most bitter ministerial critic of naval aviation in the postwar era, makes the result all the more striking. The existing carriers would be retained and modernised, with a new carrier ordered in 1963. Britain’s amphibious forces were strengthened by the conversion of Albion and Bulwark to commando carriers, and by the order of two new amphibious assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid (which would form the core of the amphibious force in the Falklands War).

This new approach, in which maritime task forces acted as a stabilising presence and, if necessary, the spearhead of a joint intervention force, was repeatedly proved during the late-1950s and early 1960s. As the UK now looks once more to expeditionary operations, having escaped the strategic blind alley of continental garrisoning, these lessons of Suez again have relevance.

Image: Three of the five British aircraft carriers involved in the Suez operation. HMS EAGLE leads HMS BULWARK and HMS ALBION.  Courtesy of IWM (A 33601).

suez

SUEZ SIXTY YEARS ON: THE LAND WAR

This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.

DR GERAINT HUGHES

An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

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Trafalgar Day, History Rhymes, and Russians in the Channel

DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.

The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.

It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.

The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.

The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.

The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’

A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.

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HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.

The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.

The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.

Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.

The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.

Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.

 

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Keeping the Genie in the Bottle: RNAS Anti-Submarine Warfare, 1912-1916

ALEXANDER HOWLETT

Throughout its long history, the Royal Navy has been both an innovator of, and adapter to, technological change. By the end of the 19th century, the sailing warship of Nelson’s day had been transformed into the all steel construction, reciprocating engine, electric powered and radio equipped, battleship. As formidable an implement of sea power as the modern battleship, Robert Whitehead’s 1866 invention of the self-propelled torpedo, despite its diminutive stature, threatened to undermine the relevance of the big-gun warship. Britain’s traditional naval strategy- close blockade and combined maritime operations- built on a foundation, according to Admiral Mahan, of sea power generated by the line-of-battle-ship, now seemed increasingly risky when faced against the meek, but deadly, coastal torpedo boat. The modern submarine, actualized by John Holland in 1900, effectively hid the otherwise vulnerable torpedo boat and thus brought the danger of torpedo attack to a new degree of immediacy.

Submarines, despite the critiques of skeptics, were soon added to the inventories of the naval powers, yet, the battleships only continued to grow in size, complexity and cost. To some radical naval thinkers, it seemed only a matter of time before the extinction of the old ways. It was at this point, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, when the disruptive asymmetry between super-heavy warships and ultra-light flotilla craft was reaching a crescendo, that another transformative technology began to enter the armouries of the naval powers, a technology that promised to transform naval warfare more profoundly than all preceding developments, and perhaps, countering the submarine along the way.

Although it is little known, the Royal Navy laid surprisingly strong foundations for the use of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare before the start of the First World War. The role of aircraft in ASW was proposed, demonstrated and operationalized between 1912 and 1914. During 1915 and 1916, however, this developing ability was placed on the backburner as wartime priorities shifted. Nevertheless, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had been primed to play a critical role in the submarine crisis, helping to contain and defeat the submarines at sea in 1917-1918. What were the roots of this wartime transformation?

Within the ranks of Royal Navy, and the nascent naval air service, there were several far-sighted officers, submariners, and undersea warfare specialists, who believed aircraft could play a vital role in ASW. Late in 1909, as his first tenure as First Sea Lord was coming to an end, Sir John Fisher established what soon became the Admiralty Submarine Committee, responsible for, amongst other trials, using aircraft to search for, and bomb, submarines. The first chairman of the Fisher committee was Admiral Cecil Burney, and it was his son, Lt. Charles Burney, who was one of the first to examine the possibility of using aircraft against submarines, a possibility he discussed in a 1913 Naval Review article (volume I, issue two). Burney then went to work for the Bristol Company, where he contributed to the development of seaplanes, specifically engineered for ASW, when the war broke out. After the disaster of 22 September 1914, when U-9 sank HMS Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, Burney was re-assigned to the RN’s torpedo school, HMS Vernon, to develop an anti-submarine explosive, the result of which was the towed paravane explosive, like the depth charge, both introduced in January 1916.

Another important pre-war practitioner was a submariner, Lt. Hugh Williamson. In early 1912, he published a paper that was circulated by Captain Murray Sueter, the Director of the Navy’s Air Department. Williamson’s paper identified and explored the significant role he believed aircraft could play in ASW: by traveling aboard a parent carrier ship, the airplanes could be delivered to the submarine’s operational area, and deployed in flights to patrol. Once detected, an enemy submarine would be forced to dive, thus shortly exhausting its battery power.

Williamson was supported by Sueter, who envisioned ASW as one of the essential duties of the Naval Wing. In the event, Williamson, following injuries sustained in a disastrous seaplane crash in March 1915, while acting as a gunfire observer at the Dardanelles, was appointed as an assistant to Rear Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee, the Director Air Services (Sueter’s replacement). Williamson later became an influential staff officer, head of the Naval Staff’s Section 11 (Air) at the Operations Division.

The usefulness of airplanes operating in the anti-submarine role was actually demonstrated during the 1913 naval maneuvers. Commander Vivian, the captain of HMS Hermes, the Navy’s first seaplane carrier, wrote an encouraging report, emphasizing the success of ship- and shore- launched aircraft for spotting submarines. In December 1913, Vivian followed up with a lecture for the Royal Navy College at Plymouth, in which he endorsed aircraft for the anti-submarine role. Another proponent, Lt. Boothby, had made the same case in the RUSI Journal in 1912, although he favoured airships.

All told, Sueter, Boothby, Burney, Williamson, and Vivian provided a solid theoretical foundation for the use of aircraft in ASW. By 1913, as Arthur Marder pointed out, it was “not an uncommon belief” that the airplanes of the future would be used to attack, and indeed bomb, submarines. The RNAS had gone some way towards operationalizing these theories by July 1914.

However, at the beginning of the war, the RNAS still possessed no specialized equipment for ASW, and the implementation of theory now confronted a dramatic wartime reality. Hermes was torpedoed by U-27 in the Dover Straits on 31 October- Vivian had been reassigned- and Williamson was dispatched to the Dardanelles. Burney’s work at Bristol was interrupted, and Sueter soon had his hands full, controlling the air defence of London during the Zeppelin raids of spring 1915.

Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, the following February, urged the development of an aerial stopgap measure for ASW. Taking a page from Lt. Boothby, Fisher looked to non-rigid airships (blimps) to fill the role. The resulting Sea Scout, perhaps the direct antecedent of the helicopter in terms of its ASW function, was soon put into production by the airship section of the Air Department. Likewise, other kit was being perfected: J. C. Porte, of Felixstowe fame, was at work improving the American Curtiss flying boats, which, of all types of naval aircraft, were the most highly anticipated for their potential range of capabilities, including ASW.

These were bold developments. However, as the land war ground to a stalemate, and the attractiveness of using submarines against merchant shipping led to the February 1915 War Zone declaration by Germany, the inability of the Navy and its Air Department to respond decisively was exposed. Deliveries of flying boats and Sea Scouts proved far short of requirements, and the machines themselves were short on horse-power, striking power, and crew comforts. Compounding these technical limitations, in May 1915, the air-minded Churchill-Fisher regime collapsed over the prosecution of the Dardanelles campaign. The RNAS, under the following Balfour-Jackson administration, was restructured and placed in a subordinate position to the Navy’s district commanders, not always harmoniously, and thus lacked coordination and central control. Resources were stretched thin, not least because the RNAS had to compete for aircraft with the Royal Flying Corps, from competing priorities within the Air Department itself. RNAS squadrons were sent to France to supplement the RFC, and an increasing number of units were engaged in the defence of British airspace from Germany’s Zeppelin raiders. The ASW campaign was only beginning, and diplomacy had so far prevented the threat from becoming critical.

When this state of affairs changed in 1917, the RNAS had three years of experience to fall back on. The pre-war theorists were soon vindicated: the aircraft would play an integral role, hunting submarines at sea, and flying protection for merchant convoys, while also striking out against the submarine bases, and thus contributing to the failure of the desperate effort to knock Britain out of the war.

This history of theory and adaptation, hesitant development and ad-hoc innovation, all under wartime pressure, is crucial, not only for the historiography of the World Wars (as many of the lessons learnt in 1914-1916 had to be relearned after 1939), but because it was a case where an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure. Although the airplane did not defeat the submarine threat, airplanes and airships did dramatically restrict U-boat areas of operation, and could have functioned (as the pre-war theory and experiments demonstrated) as part of a synergistic combined arms approach to combating the submarines right from the outset, rather than three years into the conflict. Admittedly, such an enticing possibility remained unlikely due to limitations of kit, manpower and doctrine, however, developing these capabilities before 1914 would have cost relatively little compared to the expense of the super-dreadnought arms race and lives ultimately lost during the long submarine campaign against merchant shipping.

Image: Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol, via the Imperial War Museum.

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Command, Leadership & Management: the Power of Perception

This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.

DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

Rarely has an individual whose most famous achievements came in the realm of military administration captured the historical imagination in the manner of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Yet despite the fact that was not a fighting admiral of any note, Fisher has come to bestride our appreciation on the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. Indeed it is not uncommon to see the entire period of British naval history referred to as the ‘Fisher Era’.

Fisher’s place in history was confirmed by his role in the design and construction of the eponymous battleships HMS Dreadnought in 1905-06. The largest, fastest and most heavily gunned warship afloat when she was launched, Dreadnought lent her name to the class of ships which followed – the grey ‘castles of steel’ which secured British control of the world’s oceans during the First World War.

‘Radical Jack’ was certainly an influential and important feature in British naval policy in this period, but arguably not to the extent that popular accounts would allow. He provoked bitter disputes within the Service and left the Admiralty resentful at the lack of political support he received in 1910. However his very ubiquity in our understanding of the period reveals a pivotal facet of his success – his style.

For Fisher, style was not something used to obscure a lack of substance – it was an important tool in a leader’s arsenal in and of itself. He purposefully distinguished himself from other, more reserved, officers by adopting an increasingly distinctive, flamboyant manner as he rose through the ranks. Whether strengthening his voice by shouting gunnery commands whilst marching through the South Downs as a young lieutenant in HMS Warrior, or dancing the waltz with the Duchess of Hamilton at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 aged 78, Fisher developed a unique ability to captivate an audience. He knew appearances mattered and he capitalized upon the fact, using image and style to reform the Service and as a weapon against rival powers.

Fisher’s presentation was an important factor in his rise to the position of First Sea Lord – particularly his ability to articulate defence issues within their broader political and economic context. During the financially chastened years after the Boer War, he campaigned tirelessly for reforms that he hoped would reduce spending overall spending on the military. In doing so he combined professional expertise with political nous. Whilst ostensibly avoiding comment on the Army’s budget – a topic he claimed to mentioned only with ‘great diffidence’ – Fisher bombarded the Prime Minister with proposals to reduce the naval and military estimates to ‘60 millions sterling instead of 84 millions sterling, combined with a Navy 30 per cent stronger and an Army 50 per cent more effective: this means eightpence off the Income tax!’ By augmenting his professional competence with political savvy and persuasive argumentation, Fisher rose to head the Service.

He gained leverage by consciously depicting himself as a radical, reforming figure, forming a carefully cultivated public and political image in order to win and maintain support. By stressing his progressive qualities he sought to distance himself from more conservative officers – whom he could present as antediluvian reactionaries – thereby increasing his influence in political circles. He often mischaracterized his actual opinions in doing so. Thus, whilst pronouncing that ‘history is a record of exploded ideas!’ in order to stress the ‘revolutionary’ impact of new weapons like the submarine, he simultaneously sought the counsel and assistance of the noted historian Julian Corbett on important Admiralty business.

His awareness of the importance of perception and imagine was reflected in his flexible attitude towards the press. Fisher cultivated contacts with journalists throughout his career and regularly distributed official material marked ‘very secret’ with half-meant entreaties to ‘burn’ scrawled across them to sympathetic commentators. As a Captain he had helped ferment a major navy scare in the mid-1880s by collaborating with a newspaper journalist and the experience proved instructive. Once Fisher arrived as First Sea Lord the military correspondent of The Times remarked upon ‘Sir John’s semi-confidential manifestos printed for the advantage of the press’. He was right to highlight the Fisher’s unorthodox methods. But by developing a supportive press Fisher buttressed his position and bested a number of opponents. As he justified in 1908 ‘unless I had arranged to get the whole force of public opinion to back up the Naval Revolution, it would have been simply impossible to have it carried through successfully’.

Fisher also employed symbolism and rhetoric against potential foreign opponents. In some respects the visual impact of the Dreadnought – the physical manifestation of British industrial, financial and imperial might – was more significant than her military capabilities. Fisher ‘rubbed in’ this fact as much as possible, emphasizing her superiority over enemy vessels. He did so as part of his broader strategy of deterrence. Recognising that preventing war was far cheaper than fighting it, he viewed the military instrument as a vital tool in ‘peace strategy’. By making ‘wild statements’ about the Navy’s capacity to crush the German Fleet in 1905-06, Fisher underlined to the Germans how ill-advised they would be to provoke war. Indeed, on occasion his rhetoric even got the better of judgment. Reflecting back on a series of bloodthirsty statements he had made at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, he admitted that ‘perhaps I went a little too far when I said I would boil the prisoners in oil and murder the innocent in cold blood etc., etc., etc.’ but his words had the desired affect – delegates left the event under no illusion that the Royal Navy was prepared to defend British interests.

In reality Fisher was a more considered, calculating leader than some of his more wild pronouncements would suggest. An excellent judge of character, he attracted many of the leading lights of the service to him, sponsoring the careers of

future First Sea Lords Francis Bridgeman, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and John Jellicoe and also Maurice Hankey RM – Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence after 1912. He also listened to the views of this ‘Fishpond’ of supporters, accepting modifications to his judgments and policies.

What Fisher’s example underlines is the power of perception as a tool in a leader’s arsenal. Fisher used image to secure personal advancement, support, and also as a weapon against potential enemies. This fed into his views on strategy – where he sought purposefully to exert pressure on areas the enemy felt to be particularly vulnerable. Herein lay the rationale behind his claim that the Navy was ready to ‘Copenhagen’ the German Fleet in 1905-06 and his desire to operate in the Baltic after 1914. Fisher’s bluster certainly made him many enemies and contributed to his downfall in both 1910 and 1915, but it also made him the effective political operator he was. A further, unintended side effect –which would doubtlessly have appealed to Fisher – has been to immortalize him as the epitome of the Navy he so loved.

Image: Fisher in December 1915, via wikimedia commons.

 

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Conference Report: the First World War at Sea, 1914-1919

ALEXANDER HOWLETT

This was a major international conference, featuring a master-class of subject specialists and naval historians. Since the centenary of the Battle of Jutland was only a few days prior, the great naval battle was certainly the elephant in the room. Jutland was not, however, the only subject of discussion: the strategy and tactics of the anti-submarine campaign, the Anglo-American alliance, naval aviation and other technologies, the role of the dominions, the press, and recent archeological discoveries were all discussed.

Professor Nicholas Rodger provided the opening keynote, elaborating on the concept of the decisive battle and its cultural legacy for the western way of war. Professor Rodger described the influence of the expected “second Trafalgar” on the German, French, American, Japanese and Royal Navies. This traditional culture of decisive battle continued to dominate at the turn of the 20th century, but technological change had transformed the naval context, most profoundly, by the introduction of the torpedo. The focus on the new weapons, primarily the submarine and airplane, eventually defined modern naval tactics and strategy. Integrating the new technologies would become a major challenge for Britain, and the other global powers, going forward. Indeed, it remained unclear to what extent the United States Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy had moved beyond the decisive battle doctrine by the time of the Second World War. As Dr. Bob Watts would argue on day two, it seems, to some extent, that the USN is still seeking the desired “second Trafalgar” to this day.

The first panels were focused on anti-submarine warfare, the blockade, and the war in China. I presented with Dr. Alexander Clarke and Louis Halewood on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, from the diplomatic and air perspectives. I argued that, during the 1912-1916 period, the RN never successfully addressed the problem of anti-submarine warfare from the air, although, important theories and new technologies were developed. Louis Halewood examined the delicate diplomatic situation, notably focusing on the complex aspect of Anglo-American relations (a story about which we will hear more later), and also the situation in the Mediterranean. By 1918, First Lord of the Admiralty Eric Geddes proposed the creation of an “Allied Admiralissimo” to unite the diverse national naval efforts into a single force, similar to the role of Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch on the Western Front. Alexander Clarke then completed the story, describing the legacy of the First World War efforts which led to tactical and technical innovations in the interwar period and, indeed, laid the foundation for the triumphs of the Second World War. Dr. Clarke described the importance of the Post-War Question Committee (the Phillimore Committee), which reached the conclusion that reconnaissance and deterrence had, in fact, been rather effective against the submarines- the famous scare-crow tactics forcing U-boat commanders to avoid aircraft and airships, regardless of the reality of the threat.

The second panel I attended, also on the submarine campaign, was presented by Dr. Norman Friedman, Isabelle Delumeau, Michael Brandao, and Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. Dr. Friedman, bringing his renowned analytical approach to the topic, observed that ultimately the introduction of the convoys, although often heralded as the decisive tactic for the protection of Allied merchant shipping, was in fact a stop-gap. The Germans were ultimately unable to utilize the signal intelligence required to find the convoys, and thus triangulate submarine groups to attack them, as would later be done in the Second World War. As a result, while the convoys provided a means of protection, they were not capable of terminating the threat itself.

The technological scramble on the Allied side to find a way to locate and destroy the submarines clearly demonstrated that the Allies were not prepared for this aspect of the war, despite some novel solutions such as the use of aircraft to directly attack the submarine bases. Isabelle Delumeau shared her findings concerning the Bretton fishermen who experienced the blunt end of German and Allied propaganda concerning the submarines, leading to the organization of the fishing fleet along militia-like lines. Miguel Brandao followed up by discussing Portuguese efforts to subvert the Allied blockade, specifically, the fascinating case of the town of Esposende, which smuggled eggs to the U-boats along the coast. Finally, Dr. Bruton described the astonishing case of Anglo-American technological and scientific cooperation in the efforts to develop hydrophone technology. Significantly, Dr. Burton described the effort of US Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels- of whom more later- to replicate the Fisherite think-tank, the Board of Invention and Research, which was studying anti-submarine measures, amongst other things.

The final panel in the lecture theatre on day one was presented by Dr. Jesse Tumblin, Dr. Eugene Beiriger and Dr. Dennis Conrad. Dr. Tumblin discussed the failure of the dominion fleet scheme, not least the result of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s inability to finance the requisite battlecruisers. The outcome of the Boer War suggested Canada’s Army, at the expense of the navy, might play a larger role in the future. Dr. Beiriger then discussed President Wilson’s role in the negotiations that led to the US Naval Act of 1916, while Dennis Conrad provided a defence of Josephus Daniels, the latter often portrayed as the antagonist of the fiery Admiral William Sims. At the evening reception, while the academics swirled their wine, Nicholas Rodger presented naval historian John Hattendorf with the print copy of the edited volume produced from the 2014 Oxford conference held in his honour: Strategy and the Sea.

The following day started at 9 am with the first panel specifically on the American role. Annette Amerman, USMC History Division, gave the first talk, looking at USMC naval aviation. The Marine Corps aviators cooperated with Wing Captain Charles Lambe’s RNAS and RAF forces at Dunkirk in bombing raids, including against submarine bases. David Winkler, Naval Historical Foundation, described the expansion of the US Naval Reserve into a large militia-like force, the model favoured by Josephus Daniels and Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Chuck Steele, USAF Academy, and David Kohnen, USN War College, both presented panels on William Sims and his significance. Dr. Steele stressed Sims’ importance as a diplomat between the Navies, while David Kohnen emphasized Sims’ role as a practitioner and ad hoc innovator.

The last two panels were on Jutland: Robin Brodhurst, of the Navy Records Society, gave a comprehensive presentation on the historiography of the battle of Jutland, establishing the intense controversy that still surrounds this battle after a hundred years. Dr. John Brooks, who has recently published a reassessment of Jutland for the centenary, described some of the technical nuances of the night destroyer action, and Dr. Stephen Huck, joining the conference from the German Naval Museum, Wilhelmshaven, then illuminated the experience of German crew members, raising the important question about how the men actually perceived the battle; a social history mirrored for the Royal Navy by the book, The Fighting at Jutland: the Personal Experiences of 45 Sailors of the Royal Navy, compiled by H. W. Fawcett.

After Jutland was the name of the third and final panel in the lecture theatre. Andrew Gordon described the importance of the command failure at Jutland, importantly the critical issue of signal failures, endemic ultimately of a culture of divineness within the Royal Navy. Bob Watts summarized the significance of the Jutland and the long awaited “decisive battle” for the thinking of the US Navy, and observed the reality that the Navy, even during the Second World War, was denied its grand decisive battle. James Goldrick summarized the situation after Jutland and the novel emergence of battlespace awareness alongside the need for superior scouting and intelligence gathering in the, always questionable, North Sea conditions. With the refocus on aircraft and the submarine, by the end of the war, the torpedo had seemingly triumphed over the gun, and the chance to refight Jutland had slipped away.

Andrew Lambert’s compelling keynote summarized and concluded the conference. Professor Lambert focused on Julian Corbett, later the official historian, as the architect of Britain’s grand strategy. Corbett acted as the brain trust for the British Supreme Command, and it was Corbett’s three-phase naval war model that became the basis for Corbett’s post-war history. First Sea Lord David Beatty, wary of the mistakes made at Jutland, tried to suppress the truth about his role, in particular the gunnery failure of the Battle-Cruiser Fleet, but the truth shone through in Corbett’s third volume, based on the Naval Staff’s suppressed appreciation. The significance of Hipper and Scheer’s achievement was, however, marginalized by the High Seas Fleet’s inability to break the blockade and thus influence the outcome of the war: this meant that in the final calculus, Jutland, like Trafalgar, only reaffirmed the naval status quo.

Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, via wikimedia commons.

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The Dunkirk evacuation and the German ‘halt’ order

DR TIM BENBOW

Sometimes academics are confronted by arguments with which we disagree, vehemently.  Most have something to be said for them or, at the very least, it is possible to appreciate where those proposing it are coming from and why they might believe it.  There are exceptions, which deserve nothing other than a good intellectual kicking.  For me, there is one particularly egregious example which simply refuses to lie down and die, coming back again and again like the baddie in a cheap horror movie.  I encountered this old foe once again recently when I was editing a Naval Staff Battle Summary on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk.  Historians generally acknowledge that one vital factor in allowing the British and French forces to retreat, escaping the threatened encirclement to reach Dunkirk and then to establish a rudimentary defensive perimeter there, was the German decision to halt the advance of the Panzers for three days.  This let-off has given rise to the bizarre idea that it was a deliberate decision by Hitler to provide a ‘golden bridge’ for Britain, consciously choosing not to utterly humiliate his opponent in the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

There is no denying the importance of this pause.  It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation but it was significant.  The Allied armies had fallen, or rather leaped headlong, into the trap laid by Germany.  The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter.  They therefore advanced into Belgium to meet the threat.  The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes.  They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast.  By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium.  On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force; yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance.  They were ordered to resume on 26 May but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time.  When the Germans finally took Dunkirk, the commanders wrote in their diaries, ‘The town and the coast are in our hands!’… yet they added, ‘British and French troops gone’.  No fewer than 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated, rescued from the closing trap.  Lord Gort’s brave decision to withdraw to the coast deserves huge credit, as does the professionalism of the British Expeditionary Force (and their French allies) in conducting a hugely difficult fighting withdrawal; yet without the German pause, it is most doubtful that these would have been enough.

How could the most formidable military machine on the planet at this time, which was on the verge of shattering what had previously been seen as the greatest military power in Europe, have made such an elementary mistake?  Why would it voluntarily choose to leave the trap open, allowing the prey to escape?  It must have been a deliberate decision… hence the golden bridge theory.  This was initially propagated by Hitler to explain how he let strategic victory against Britain slip through his fingers; the refrain was eagerly taken up after the war by some surviving German generals who were quite happy to shift responsibility on to the conveniently dead führer – and was spread by Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps a little too inclined to take the word of captured German officers, especially when they talked up the influence upon them of his interwar ideas.  Nonetheless, the idea really is the most ridiculous nonsense.

First, even on its own terms, it does not make any sense.  While there is room to doubt the coherence of Hitler’s strategy towards Britain in 1940, it is not implausible to suggest that he would have welcomed a negotiated peace.  His prospects of achieving this would have been immeasurably improved by the additional bargaining chip of a quarter of a million British prisoners, to say nothing of the psychological blow to Britain of losing the best-trained part of her small army.

Second, the theory does not fit the facts.  If the Germans really were trying to allow the British Expeditionary Force to escape, then they displayed an unusual level of incompetence: only Army Group A actually paused – and only in part, as it still captured Calais and Boulogne – and only for three days before continuing. Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allies with all of their strength.  This hardly amounts to a free pass or allowing the British to slip away.

Third, there is a perfectly good explanation available that does not require a far-fetched conspiracy theory – and which, incidentally, is whole-heartedly accepted by every serious work on the subject that uses German sources.  Many senior German officers were nervous from the outset about the bold changes made to the original, more traditional plan for the attack on France, and in particular about the envisaged rapid advance of the Panzers that would involve outpacing their infantry, artillery and logistic support.  This bold vision was undoubtedly risky; the advancing armour could have faced a serious defeat if the Allies had been able to launch a coherent counter-attack against its flanks or rear.  We now know that the German offensive had precisely the effect it was designed to in paralysing the Allied high command, shattering its will and ability to devise and execute an effective counter stroke; but this was not known to the Germans in May 1940.  Moreover, there had been a warning sign of precisely what some of the more cautious German commanders feared when the British launched a small-scale counter-attack near Arras on 21 May.  This limited and short-lived success played into a growing sense of unease among those German officers inclined to worry that their success was too good to be true, and wary of pushing their attack beyond its culminating point.  The Arras counter-attack achieved only local tactical success, but it exerted a decisive influence on a debate that was already underway in the German high command.

The Panzers badly needed a pause to rest, repair and reconstitute, and to bring forward support and supplies.  There was no need to risk them in unfavourable terrain, when there was a perfectly good alternative in the form of Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe, whose leadership (not least the influential Göring) were keen to seize their place in the sun – a rare case where the overclaiming of air power enthusiasts was to the benefit of the Allies.  The tanks would be needed for the rest of the campaign and the push to Paris, taking on the bulk of the French Army, which still comprised a large and powerful force.  The Allied armies in the north had been defeated, were nearly encircled and only needed to be mopped up.  Why take a risk in rushing these closing moves of the first stage of the operation?

This last question suggests an important point about the whole debate: there is actually far less of a puzzle here than has been suggested.  Why on earth would it occur to a continental power that evacuation on any significant scale was possible?  After all, even the British Admiralty believed at the outset of the operation that at best, maybe 45,000 men could be rescued.  There is no mystery in the fact that Germany was not alert to this possibility.  The British were trapped and there was no reason for the Germans to suspect that their fate would be anything other than what would, three years later, befall Axis forces after their defeat in North Africa: without a Navy that was willing and able to go to such lengths to rescue them, 230,000 Axis troops were captured and only a few hundred escaped.  It is only hindsight and the knowledge it presents of the stunning success of the Allied evacuation that raises the question in the first place with respect to Dunkirk.  Considered in this light, the apparent mystery simply melts away.

Image: British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, via the Imperial War Museum.

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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.