The operational level of war and maritime forces


The recurrent debate over whether or not the operational level of war exists can sometimes feel like the land component talking to itself.  The vast majority of what is written about the operational level, and operational art, focusses predominantly on land operations.  It is rare to find an acknowledgement of the significance of the other components or other government agencies, let alone a systematic consideration of how they might view or fit into the operational level.  Yet one of the strongest arguments for the reality of the operational level – and for its continuing utility despite the changing character of conflict – is that this is where the different components come together, along with tools of government policy other than military power, for the design and implementation of a campaign plan to achieve political objectives.  This approach to understanding the operational level is rather different to that envisaged by Soviet thinkers in the interwar period, German panzer commanders in 1940 or even NATO in the 1980s.  Yet this formulation – which reflects modern British and NATO doctrine – is not a twisting of the original concept but rather a pragmatic up-dating of it, an evolution to allow it to fit contemporary circumstances.

The point remains, however, that the literature on the operational level and operational art is dominated to an unhealthy degree by land power.  It was for this reason that I wrote an article for the RUSI Journal that considered the operational level from the maritime perspective.  I argued that the operational level does apply to the maritime environment, albeit in ways that to some extent differ from the land.  These differences matter because maritime forces contribute to operational and strategic goals in distinctive ways; a maritime commander needs to understand these differences in order to provide the best support to a joint campaign, while a joint commander needs to understand them in order to get the most utility out of the maritime component, as well as to appreciate that it might have its own requirements to enable it to make this contribution.

The key differences in the operational level for maritime forces are that the relationship between attack and defence is more fluid than on land; that the levels of war are more often short-circuited (the current understanding of the operational level is sufficiently flexible to acknowledge that the strategic and the tactical can sometimes be directed linked); and, in particular, that distance and time apply in different ways.  Frequently, when those from the land (and even to some extent air) component are seeking to understand how or why a maritime campaign or contribution to a joint campaign differs, the answer lies in them considering a bigger map or a broader timescale.

For the land component, maritime forces might be acting in close conjunction with them at the tactical level, for example when conducting an amphibious landing, or providing fire support or surveillance over the battlefield.  The Iraq invasion of 2003, in particular the landings and subsequent operations in the Al Faw peninsula, provide a case of this.

More often, maritime forces will be acting out of sight of the land but as part of a coordinated joint campaign, where the effects of the activities of the different components (and other government agencies) come together at the operational level.  The Mediterranean theatre in the Second World War offers several fine examples of this; others might include the US amphibious feint during the 1991 Gulf War, which helped to fix and divert a significant proportion of the Iraqi ground forces away from the intended advance of the coalition.  In both of these cases, of course, maritime forces provided broader support to ground-based land and air forces over a prolonged period before, during and after specific operations from initial deployment to post-war recovery.

Sometimes, the activities of maritime forces might be conducted quite separately from those of land forces, in campaigns which complement those ashore with their combined effect coming together at the strategic level.  The misnamed ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ in both world wars had to be won to further a range of military and broader strategic objectives – not least to allow other campaigns to be fought (including, in the Second World War, the strategic bombing offensive).  Both of these campaigns were strikingly joint, as well as requiring the carefully tailored input of other arms of government, from intelligence to diplomacy.

Another fascinating example of operational thinking in the maritime environment is the US forward maritime strategy of the mid-1980s.  This represented an imaginative attempt to apply the US and NATO advantage in naval power to gain leverage over the Soviet Union in a crisis or to put significant military pressure on it in the event of war.  Rather than sit back defensively behind the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and fight to protect Atlantic shipping from there, this new approach envisaged pushing carrier battle groups well to the north (primarily, though also into the eastern Mediterranean and in the Far East to threaten the Pacific coast of the USSR).  By threatening Soviet territory and the bastions for their nuclear missile-armed submarines, this action would compel the USSR to pull its naval and maritime air forces out of the Atlantic (thereby achieving a defensive aim of protecting shipping that was carrying allied reinforcements for the land campaign) and also to divert air and even land forces from the battle on the Central Front, thereby indirectly supporting NATO land forces – in addition to any direct support that US carriers could subsequently provide with air and missile strikes.  The concept was, to say the least, not without its critics yet two points stand out.  First, it was without doubt taken very seriously by the USSR.  Second, it represented thinking at the operational level, aiming to use maritime forces in a creative way to achieve campaign and wider strategic objectives at sea while also supporting activities on land from the sea.  In passing, of course, it also provides a useful pointer as to how the West might make creative use of its maritime power to put pressure on an aggressive Russia or an assertive China, not least in threatening to spread any conflict to areas other than those in which they would ideally prefer to fight.

The debate over the operational level could therefore usefully raise its gaze from land warfare alone.  Doing so could clarify the existence and utility of the operational level, while also improving the coordination of military and non-military instruments of policy that is needed for a successful campaign.

Image: US Navy (USN) F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211), Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA), in flight over burning Kuwaiti oil wells during Operation DESERT STORM, via wikimedia commons


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


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

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


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.

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.


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.


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


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.

The Dunkirk evacuation and the German ‘halt’ order


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.

The role of the capital ship in naval strategy


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.



Prof. Kennedy’s latest publication ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War they Thought, the War the Fought’ is now available from Ashgate Publishing.

The concept of “lessons-learned” has become a growth industry in the realm of academic, and not so academic, writing on Western strategic and operational processes within defence and security topics. In the aftermath of failed operations to reconstruct Iraq and Afghanistan into viable, functioning states, many questions about what the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world holds for the use of military power are being asked, particularly regarding doctrinal and tactical matters. The limited utility of Western military power in dealing with the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria and now the threat posed by the rise of Islamic State, has created a ground-swell of literature that all points to lessons of the near-past having to be studied in order to learn lessons as to, primarily, identify what went wrong and how to avoid repeating such mistakes in the future. In the United Kingdom (UK) in particular, this search for lessons in manifest in the much-delayed Iraq Inquiry set up under the leadership of Sir John Chilcot. As such, most of the lessons-learned processes are reactive and avoidance oriented, instead of proactive and initiative oriented. Furthermore, the majority of these inquiries and questions about lessons learned are land warfare oriented. A distinctly land-focused historical appreciation of Britain’s role in the First World War during present commemorations and appreciations, with respect to the 100 year anniversary of that conflict, has only served to exacerbate this historic misunderstanding of Britain’s ability to learn about and prepare for future wars. This focus on a land environment approach for trying to use the lessons of the past, with both near and distant historical examples, belies the true nature of the past and current UK strategic need: to understand the use of sea power and the maritime domain in defence of the national interest.

This study utilizes a comprehensive methodology to interrogate one of the most significant periods of Britain’s maritime past with regard to lessons learned and preparation for future conflict. In the period leading up to the First World War the nature of the international system was complex and fluid, changing rapidly due to social, technological, commercial, fiscal and cultural pressures. As such it is an appropriate period to use for comparison to today’s international condition, which is described as being also in such a state of flux and transition. Furthermore, within the British strategic policy making elite, questions about what nations could be relied upon to be allies, neutrals or opponents were also fundamental to strategic planning for the future. Much like today and the choices presented to the UK’s strategic policy making elite, questions about how the world worked and why, how much money to spend on what, and what aspect of military power was most appropriate to the nation’s strategic condition, made such planning fraught with difficulty. However, one element of that strategic consideration process was clear: the centrality of the continued use and access to the maritime domain for all of the nation’s, and the empire’s, continued national security and prosperity in any peace. For Britain any general European war would require a maritime strategy to be utilized in order to create, apply and disseminate power on a global scale. Such is arguably still the case for Britain’s strategic position in the world as a key economic, political and military actor, that is absolutely dependent on the continued good governance and use of the seas in such a fashion.

The book’s focus will look at how various aspects of that maritime security question were appreciated before the war, and how, if any, those appreciations changed due to the actual realities of the war itself. Issues relating to technological change, force structures and positioning, appreciations of potential allies, education, intelligence and the need to wage economic warfare as the first line of national defence, are dealt with by an international array of scholars. What is produced is a useful case study of the merits and perils of war planning and lessons learned in an under-appreciated area of both First World War studies, and, contemporary discussions about the UK’s strategic way ahead. As such, it is an important work of history that can be read with benefit by contemporary UK policy makers, as well as students of history. For what better approach to “lessons learned” is there than a comprehensive and sound knowledge of history? History is, after all, the core intellectual discipline that is the very essence of the methodological underpinnings of such exercises.

Image: The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I, via wikimedia commons.

Digital First World War Resources: Online Official Histories — The War at Sea and in the Air


In an earlier post, I examined the official histories of the First World War on the land. Obviously, the war on land was only one aspect of the First World War, combat in the air and on the sea played significant roles in the outcome of the war. Indeed, it is in these arenas that some of the most significant innovations occurred, as armed forces learned to make the most effective use of new and untried technologies and how these technologies could be improved. The First World War saw the first use of powered aircraft, which became increasingly central to the prosecution of the war, and saw the first widespread use of submarines to attempt to enforce a wide-ranging blockade at sea. The official histories produced by each of the belligerents provide important sources for these aspects of the war.

With the largest navy in the world in 1914, Great Britain took the undisputed lead in Entente naval operations during the First World War. If the British official history of the war on land is hard to come by in electronic form, the same cannot be said about the corresponding history of the Royal Navy. The Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence was also responsible for the official histories of Britain’s effort at sea and in the air. The writing of the official account of the Royal Navy’s contribution to the war initially fell to the renowned naval historian and theorist Sir Julian Corbett, but was finished after Corbett’s death by Sir Henry Newbolt. The first of the five volumes of the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Naval Operations appeared in 1920 with the last published in 1931. The first four volumes of this series are available to be read online or downloaded. Naval Operations can be supplemented by the Admiralty Staff monographs, which were compiled during the Interwar period and cover various engagements and campaigns of the Royal Navy. The Royal Australian Navy has made available the first 19 volumes for download.

Other useful additions to Naval Operations are the British official histories covering trade during the war. The first volume of C.Ernest Fayle’s 3-volume series Seaborne Trade (1920-1924) is available to download. Additionally, two volumes of The Merchant Navy (1924-1929) by Sir Archibald Hurd are also free to download or read online.

As with the war on land, forces from the British Empire also contributed to the war at sea. Arthur Wilberforce Jose, a close friend of Charles E.W. Bean, was chosen to write the official history of the Royal Australian Navy during the First World War. After a torturous process of getting the volume through the censors, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918 was finally published in 1928 as volume nine of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume can be read online or download in parts from the Australian War Memorial website. In 1962, Gilbert Tucker produced the first volume of an official history of Canada’s naval services, which covers the First World War period. The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History Vol I: Origins and Early Years is free to download as a pdf from the National Defence and the Canadian Forces website.

Much like the US Army, in the Interwar period, the US Navy remained short of funds to compile an official history of its actions in the First World War. Lacking a large-scale official history, the Historical Section of the Navy Department produced four short volumes between 1920 and 1923, which are useful sources on US naval activity in the war, some of which are available online: German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada; The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities; The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France; and The American Naval Planning Section London.

The official history of the German navy’s war at sea is even more extensive than the Royal Navy’s history. During the Interwar period, the Marine-Archiv under the direction of Vizeadmiral Eberhard von Mantey undertook the publication of twenty-two volumes covering the Reichsmarine’s war as Der Krieg zur See 1914-1918. This was divided into seven different series, some of which are currently available to read online or download: ‘Der Krieg in der Nordsee’ (seven volumes); ‘Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten’ (five volumes); ‘Der Krieg in der Ostsee’ (three volumes); ‘Der Kreuzerkrieg in den ausländischen Gewässern’ (three volumes); ‘Der Krieg in den türkischen Gewässern’ (two volumes); ‘Die Kämpfe der kaiserlichen Marine in den deutschen Kolonien’ (one volume); and ‘Die Überwasserstreitkräfte und ihre Technik’ (one volume). Unfortunately, the volumes covering some of the most interesting aspects of the war at sea – the German submarine campaign and the battle of Jutland, for example – are not available online.

Great Britain emerged from the First World War with the only independent air force. The creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 meant that there was a strong institutional drive to produce a high-quality official history of the role of the air forces in the First World War. All six volumes of The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force are available online for reading or downloading. This series, published between 1922 and 1937, was begun by Sir Walter Raleigh and continued by H.A. Jones when Raleigh died in 1922. Its volumes contain useful primary sources in the form of reports and memoranda. The War in the Air can be profitably supplemented with the volume eight of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume entitled The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 was originally published in 1923 by F.M. Cutlack and provides considerable detail on the Australian effort in the air.

Much like the official history of the US Army in the First World War, constraints in the Interwar period, not least the lack of an independent air force, prevented the publication of an official history of US air operations during the war. Nonetheless, like the rest of the army, the US Army Air Corps had collected and produced considerable records of its activities during the war. In 1978, the Office of Air Force History finally produced a four-volume series, The U.S. Air Service in World War I. These four volumes, which are available to download or read online, reproduce reports written during the war and in the Interwar period and provide invaluable sources on US air activities in 1917 and 1918 and include large numbers of orders and reports written during wartime operations.

The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from possessing an independent air force. This fact alone retarded the writing of any official history of German air operations during the war. When the Luftwaffe was formed once Germany had repudiated the Versailles Treaty, the newly formed Reichsluftfahrtministerium began writing an official history of the German air activities during the war, entitled Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte von ihrer Entstehung bis zum Ende des Weltkrieges 1918. However, the Second World War and German defeat prevented the completion of this project and only four volumes of this series were published between 1941 and 1943. None of these appear to be readily available online. The closest there is to an official history of the German air effort in the war is Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte im Weltkriege edited by Georg Paul Neumann and published in 1920. This 617-page volume draws on official records and provides a useful source in the absence of the official history. An English-language translation of portions of this work was done by J.E. Gurdon in 1921 and published as a much-shorter The German Air Force in the Great War.

Like all sources, the official histories discussed here and in my previous post have their strengths and weaknesses for historians. However, like the increasing availability of archival material online discussed in an earlier post, these digital sources open new research possibilities for historians of the First World War. The ready availability of these histories should allow for a deeper understanding of the operational side of the war from a comparative perspective.

As with my previous posts on digital First World War resources, if you know of any I have left off this list, please let me know via the comments below. Once comments come in, I will update this and previous posts to reflect these.

The Turning Point of the First World War, 1915

In a recent post, Dr Nick Lloyd described 1915 as the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War. To correct this, in occasional posts throughout 2015 members of the First World War Research Group based in the Defence Studies Department will examine unknown or forgotten aspects of the war during 1915.


In December 1914, British government was faced with difficult choice. The bloody battles of the summer and autumn of 1914 had all but consumed the original establishment of the British Expeditionary Force. These losses had more than been compensated for by the ‘rush to the colors’, which provided the manpower for a much expanded army, but the question of how best to deploy this new force remained unanswered. Despite growing pressure from her French ally, Britain had yet to adopt a ‘continental’ strategy. Rather, the government of Herbert Asquith attempted to adhere to a policy of ‘business as usual’; extending credit to Britain’s alliance partners, providing a limited military commitment and relying primarily upon maritime economic warfare as Britain’s primary weapon. Such an approach was intended to insulate the British economy as far as possible from the dislocation the war threatened, allowing Britain to prosecute the conflict at an affordable cost. Thus, as the first of Lord Kitchener’s new armies began to approach combat readiness in the winter of 1914, the Cabinet considered how Britain should employ her new-found military strength to best effect in the year ahead. As Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, noted on December 28th, ‘the remarkable deadlock which has occurred in the western theatre of war invites consideration of the question of whether some other outlet can be found for the effective employment of the great forces of which we shall be able to dispose in a few months time.’

In the subsequent debate, the Cabinet settled upon an initial naval demonstration against the Dardanelles, intended to knock the weakest of the Central Powers; the Ottoman Empire, out of the war. In doing so they sought to exploit Britain’s maritime strength to project power against the enemy’s weakest point, adopting what Basil Liddell Hart would later term an ‘indirect approach’. However, it is important to appreciate that what would become the Gallipoli campaign was but one of the alternatives to the Western Front under consideration during the winter of 1914/5. This post will discuss one of the other schemes mooted at this point and attempt to underline the importance of adopting contemporary viewpoints in assessing the actions of decision-makers at the time.

Whereas military and naval planners had consistently questioned the feasibility of forcing the Dardanelles since the mid-1880s, plans for amphibious operations in northern waters had received more detailed consideration. Inter service co-operation remained limited, but the Admiralty devoted considerable attention to potential assaults against French and Russian port installations during the 1880s and 1890s. Since the early 1900s, similar schemes had been projected against the German North Sea and Baltic littorals. In their earliest iterations, these plans had been intended to provide advanced bases to support British destroyer patrols off the enemy coastline. Suggestions to limit German egress to the North Sea by means of sinking blockships in the estuaries of major ports were also considered. It is generally agreed that all such plans were shelved in mid-1911, after the Navy presented a supposedly incoherent and unrealistic plan of campaign to the government during a major war-scare over German activities in the Moroccan port of Agadir. The consensus has been that, in the absence of a formal naval staff to conduct systematic strategic planning the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, betrayed a failure to comprehend the realities of modern naval warfare by forwarding proposals for a series of anachronistic inshore operations in the Heligoland Bight. Hankey himself later recalled that the navy’s plan smelt of having been ‘cooked up in the dinner hour’ and Prime Minister Asquith described the admiral’s presentation as ‘puerile’.

What these authorities failed to appreciate, however, is that Wilson’s presentation actually embodied the navy’s most recent experiments in anti-submarine warfare. The First Sea Lord had justified his plans on the grounds that they would facilitate the ‘sealing in’ of German submarines and torpedo craft. On first inspection, such reasoning appeared questionable at best. Yet, contemporary submarine boats were so slow and vulnerable whilst surfaced that British practice was to escort the craft out of port with armoured cruisers and destroyers. Exercises conducted just weeks before the crucial meeting at which Wilson laid out his plans confirmed that the navy’s best chance to intercept German submarines was when they were in the shallow coastal waters of the Heliogland Bight, before they reached the open sea. Obscured by the Admiral’s brusque style, this important fact appears to have eluded the politicians assembled at the meeting. In itself, this is not definitive evidence of fundamental shortcomings in the rationale behind the plans, however.

One man upon whom Wilson’s logic was not lost was Winston Churchill, who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in the aftermath of the August 1911 crisis. Soon after arriving in his post, the new First Lord became a confirmed advocate of amphibious operations against the German coastline. His natural inclination towards offensive and dramatic operations doubtless played a key role in determining this stance, which was opposed by many of his more conservative advisors. Yet, it is significant to note that Churchill developed plans for operations against the German North Sea littoral as an alternative to a bombardment of the Dardanelles in the winter of 1914/5.

For the first six months of the war, German submarines had exercised an even greater impact on the war in the North Sea than the Admiralty had anticipated. Finding a solution to this problem therefore became an urgent requirement for the naval leadership. Ever eager for a proactive response, Churchill threw his full weight behind a modified version of the plans Wilson had outlined in 1911, much to the amusement of the former First Sea Lord, Sir Francis Bridgeman, whom Churchill had unceremoniously forced into retirement the 1912. Writing to a friend, Bridgeman remarked how in 1911 ‘Churchill [had] laughed at the idea & in consequence the scheme went by the board!’ but that ‘It is therefore interesting to hear of a revival of the old projects!’

Whatever his doubts had been in 1911, after six months of war the First Lord’s mind had clearly been made up. On January 3rd he minuted that ‘all preparations should be made for the capture of Sylt’. (‘Sylt’, an island in the Frisian chain, was the codename adopted to mask the true target of the planned attack; the island of Borkum.) Circumstances conspired to ensure that the operation was put into temporary stasis several weeks later, however it continued to command the Admiralty’s interest. In the wake of the commencement of Germany’s first unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in March, Churchill was quick to return to the plans, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the attack on British shipping. He explained to his colleagues that:

The object is to close up the mouth of the Jade and Weser & the Elbe, first by lines of mines & secondly by lines of anti-S/M [submarine] nets, & so protect these minefields from disturbance by monitors & destroyers wh[ich] are themselves not afraid of S/Ms.

On this occasion the competing resource demands of the Dardanelles campaign and the implosion of the Churchill-Fisher regime at the Admiralty in May combined to ensure that the plans again receded into the background. Professional naval opinion was divided as to their efficacy and it would have taken decisive political leadership to force their approval. Yet, it is worthwhile to appreciate just how close the ‘Sylt’ scheme came to being implemented and that the rationale behind it was more coherent than is commonly considered. Developments in technology had not invalidated the fundamental principles of naval warfare, or removed the scope for assuming the offensive in the North Sea. They merely required adaptation and initiative to circumvent. As Churchill argued when attempting to revive his scheme in the context of a renewed unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in mid-1917, the plans represented a ‘return to the old and definitely recognised policy of close and aggressive blockade’.

In examining the course of the war in 1915, it is crucial to do so unburdened by our knowledge of the events of 1916-18. At this point, the strategic options facing the Cabinet were broader than is often remembered. Our appreciation of the year 1915 must, therefore, be approached from the perspective of a fluid and dynamic strategic situation in which British policy makers sought to adopt creative solutions to the slaughter of the Western Front. That they ultimately failed in this endeavour was the product of the realities of industrialised total war, rather than a lack of imagination or humanity.

Image: ” German Submarine U-14 (LOC) (6358166395).” This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.17779. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.