47: Naval Arms Race Pt. 4



  • Arms Control and the Anglo-German Naval Race before World War I: Lessons for Today? by John H. Maurer
  • A Fleet in Begin: The Rise and Fall of Italian Sea Power, 1861-1943 by Brian R. Sullivan
  • Admirals versus Generals: The WAr Airms of the Imperial German Navy, 1914-1918 by Holger H. Herwig
  • From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919
  • The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon and Paul Wilderson
  • Winning Cheaper Laurels: Borkum/Baltic, the Dardanelles, and Churchill’s Search for a Naval Offensive in the First World War, 1914-1915 by Graham Clews
  • Detente and Deterrence: Anglo-German Relations, 1911-1914 by Sean M. Lynn-Jones
  • ‘The Spirit of the Army’ at Sea: The Prussian-German Naval Officer Corps, 1847-1897 by Lawrence Sondhaus
  • The German Reaction to the Dreadnought Revolution by Holger H. Herwig
  • The German School of Naval Thought and the Origins of the Tirpitz Plan 1875-1900 by Rolf Hobson
  • Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914 by P.M. Kennedy
  • The Titan Refreshed: Imperial Overstretch and the British Navy before the First World War by Phillips Payson O’Brien
  • Krupp and the Imperial German Navy, 1898-1914: A Reassessment by Michael Epkenhans
  • Left-Wing Opposition to Naval Armaments in Britain Before 1914 by Howard Weinroth
  • The Unknown Effort: Theodore Roosevelt’s Battleship Plan and International Arms Limitation Talks, 1906-1907 by Frederick C. Leiner
  • Strategy, Tactics, and Turf Wars: Tirpitz and the Oberkommando der Marine, 1892-1895 by Patrick J. Kelly
  • Tirpitz: And the Imperial German Navy by Patrick J. Kelly
  • Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie
  • The Failure of British Espionage against Germany, 1907-1914 by Nicholas P. Hiley
  • The Complexity of Strategy: “Jackie” Fisher and the Trouble with Submarines by Christopher Martin
  • Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology by Jon Tetsuro Sumida
  • The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asian Cruiser Squadron in 1914 by Peter Overlack
  • The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry and Informal Arms Control, 1912-1914 by John H. Maurer
  • Nation, Empire and Navy: Identity Politics in the United Kingdom 1887-1914 by Jan Ruger
  • Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918 by Shawn T. Grimes
  • Steaming in the Dark? Rules, Rivals, and the British Navy, 1860-1913 by Richard J. Stoll
  • ‘Riches beyond the Dreams of Avarice’?: Commercial Returns on British Warship Construction, 1889-1914 by A.J. Arnold
  • Strategic Command and Control for Maneuver Warfare: Creation of the Royal Navy’s “War Room” System, 1905-1915 by Nicholas A. Lambert
  • Memories and Records Volume Two by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher
  • Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War by Admiral Reinhard Scheer
  • “Luxury” Fleet: The Imperial German Navy 1888-1918 by Holger H. Herwig
  • The Grand Fleet 1914-1916: Its Creation, Development and Work by Admiral Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa
  • The Great Naval Race: Anglo-German naval rivalry 1900-1914 by Peter Padfield


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 48. This episode was initially planned to be about half way through the content for these Naval episodes, but well, I think it is only about a third, so these episodes may be ongoing for awhile. Anyway, last episode we discussed the challenges faced by the Royal Navy during the late 19th century. Most of those challenges revolved around how to adapt to the new technologies and the ever shifting geopolitical situation. This episode we will discuss the massive reforms that were put in place during the reign of Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher as First Sea Lord starting in 1905. It would be under Fisher’s leadership that the Royal Navy as it would be in 1914 would be created. Fisher’s reforms would drastically change both the Royal Navy and then every other navy in the world due to their reaction to his changes. The most well known of these changes would be the creation of the HMS Dreadnought, which was of course a very big deal, but many of Fisher’s reforms were far less flashy, and often more controversial. These less flashy changes were his attempts to address the economic problems that the Royal Navy was facing. He believed that there were too many ships, many of them hopelessly obsolete, scattered around the world that existed purely to show the flag of the Royal Navy, which was all well and good, albeit expensive, during a time of peace but it would make the navy less prepared for a period of war. The removal of these ships from the Navy was just one of many reforms. A good way to describe the Fisher era reforms, and the reason that they were needed, comes from Fisher himself who would say “There is only so much money available to the Navy-if you put it into chairs that can’t fight, you take it away from ships and men who can.” In their book The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command Andrew Gordon and Paul Wilderson have this excellent piece of info to emphasize the pace and scale of change during Fisher’s time in the Royal navy that began in 1854, it is also good to remember that many of the other leaders of the Royal Navy existed in the same timeframe, “he was nominated for the Navy in 1854 by the last of Nelson’s captains still on the Active List (Admiral Sir William Parker, C-in-C Plymouth), and the last of the great ships he built (HMS Renown) was in front-line service in the year of the atomic bomb.” The rate of technological change in the navy during this period would surpass anything from the previous centuries, and Fisher would be the one to try and force the Royal navy to adapt.

Fisher’s path to affecting change would start in the Mediterranean when he took command of the fleet in that Sea in 1899. He would be in command in the Med for 3 years, and during this time he was focused on one thing, preparing the fleet for war. He introduced and emphasized gunnery practice that, at the time, was at the extremely long range of 6,000 yards. He would also follow in the footsteps of Tryon in his disdain for many of the changes that had been made in the Royal Navy in the preceding years. These mindsets would cause friction with many other naval leaders at the time, but Fisher had a group of generally younger officers under his command that supported his ideas. After three years as the head of the Mediterranean Fleet Fisher would go back to London to take up the post of Second Sea Lord, and during his year in the position his ideas and plans for his leader reforms began to solidify. One of these ideas would become the HMS Dreadnought and the battlecruisers that would be build alongside it. The concept of these new classes of ships would then be detailed during Fisher’s stint as the Commander and Chief at Portsmouth. Along with all of the planning for the future he would also create a new naval college at this time at Osborne. All of these actions and postings were leading up to his time as the First Sea Lord, a position that he would assume on October 21, 2014.

Before we discuss what Fisher would be doing during his tenure as First Sea Lord, we have to talk just briefly about an event that occurred less than a day after he took over the position. This would be an event that would almost lead the Royal Navy to start a war with Russia. The Russo-Japanese War was ongoing, and the Russian Pacific Fleet had been destroyed. The Russians believed that their only option to continue the war was to send their Baltic Fleet all the way around the world to take its place. This was a very bad decision, for enough reason that it would take a whole episode to describe them, but trust me it was a very bad call. Part of this journey meant sailing through the North Sea. The Russians were very concerned that there might be Japanese torpedo boats in these waters, which would be present with the knowledge and permission of the Royal Navy. These concerns were so acute that when some spotlights found some ships near Dogger Bank, the Russian ships opened fire. They were not in fact Japanese torpedo boats but instead British fishing ships. This almost caused an international incident, just a few hours after Fisher took over the navy. Nothing would come of this tension, other than the destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet as soon as they arrived in the Pacific. The total destruction of the Russian fleet did represent a major shift in naval geography, with Russia seen as one of the major possible enemies for the Royal Navy. With its removal the number of possible enemies for the navy was reduced, and Germany began to grow in focus, a focus that would play a role in many of Fisher’s decisions.

In this episode we will be covering three of Fisher’s main reforms: his changes to the personnel in the navy, the changes to the policies around the retention and upkeep of older ships, and the strategic positioning of the Navy’s resources. I will be saving discussions about the Dreadnought until next episode. If Fisher wanted to enact wide ranging reforms he believed that it was essential that he not only address this ships in the Royal navy but also the men aboard those ships. It would all start with the officers, which Fisher tried to address by reforming officer training. A new system of training was introduced for all new officers in an attempt to create officers that were more prepared for the realities of modern naval operations. This meant studies on new technologies, like steam engines, radios, and long distance gunnery. Every officer was not expected to be an expert on all of these systems, but it was essential that they have some passing level of familiarity with all of the important systems on the ship. Along with this more basic training there would also be a new emphasis on continuing education. This involved topics like naval history, strategy, tactics, and international law all of the things that officers needed not just so that they knew how to do their job but also to make the correct decisions while at sea. Along with an emphasis on the training of officers for their current jobs and responsibilities Fisher also supported innovator who wanted to improve the ability of those officers to lead their ships. One example of this was Captain Percy Scott, who was supported by Fisher in his attempts to increase the accuracy of the guns. Up until this point the guns on the ships had often been using very rudimentary gunnery methods, often involving a lot of missing and then slow adjustments. Scott developed a system that almost tripled the accuracy of the guns, and even had ways to account for the ever present roll of the ship. With all of these changes, Fisher was trying to prepare the Royal Navy not just to be a navy, but also to fight. Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle would describe Fisher’s actions like this “His great claim to fame is that he succeeded in making us think. Before he asserted himself, the spirit and discipline of the Navy were excellent, but we were in a groove in which merit was decided and rewards given for smartness in drills, in appearance of ships, and in handling them in close order. Fisher got us out of that groove and made us realize that the object of our existence was fighting, and that our training, our habits, our exercises, and our thoughts must always have that in view.” While the officers were the primary focus of many of these changes there was also an effort to make their time aboard ship better for the sailors on board the ships. Fisher would enact several long overdue reforms to life aboard ship that were almost universally welcomed by those on the lower decks. Many of these were easy changes like making sure that there were bakeries on all of the ships so that nobody had to eat hard tack, improving the overall quality of the food, and then providing paths for career advancement for the men. These were items that today would be considered the bear minimum, and by instituting them Fisher became very well liked among the sailors.

Along with improving the skills and knowledge of the officers, Fisher also wanted to better utilize the talent that the navy did have, while also utilizing them in an economic way. This was done through the introduction of the nucleus crew system. Before the introduction of this new system the Royal Navy had an active fleet and then a fleet reserve. These reserve ships, or at least the lowest level of reserve ships, were kept far from in fighting shape, with the most skeleton of skeleton crews tasked with keeping them afloat while they were in long term storage. It was understood that the schedule to get these ships ready to fight was measured in many months and so they would only be activated in the case of a large war. Fisher’s nucleus crew system tried to make the reserve fleet more than just a bunch of rusty hulls sitting in harbor. Instead of being far from ready to fight the Fleet Reserve would instead be manned by a nucleus crew, which would be about two-fifths of the ships full complement. Critically this nucleus crew included all of the most important specialty officers, the ones whose knowledge was absolutely critical to ensuring that the ship was ready to sail. If the fleet was mobilized these nucleus crews would then be augmented by reserve and trainee sailors, but because all of the most important men were already aboard the ships these new sailors did not need extensive training. Fisher also mandated that these reserve ships participate in annual maneuvers, which gave both the ships and the men a chance to shake off the rust and for new trainees to get a bit of on the job training. Fisher believe that this change, the nucleus crew system, was the most important of his changes but there was a problem, the men did not exist within the navy to create these nucleus crews, and Fisher could not expand the naval budget just to accommodate them. Fisher did have a plan for this problem though, because another reform, that went hand in hand with the nucleus crew system was a brutal culling of the Navy’s ships.

This brutal culling was required by the pace of technological advancements in the last 2 decades of the 19th century, although the Royal Navy was in a denial about the need for drastic changes. Since the Napoleonic War, and into the modern day, naval technology has been cyclical, there have been periods of very rapid technological advancement like the beginning of the 20th century and before World War 2, and there have been long periods of relative stagnation like the decades after the 1880s or the years after World War 2. For example at the time of Trafalgar Nelson’s flagship was 40 years old, and at that point there was not much difference between his ships and new ones coming out of port. This level of longevity would not be possible during the middle decades of the 19th century due to the pace of technological advancement, however these advances would slow during the 1880s, at a time when all ships were steam powered and had armor plating. For the Royal Navy this was a welcome development because the Navy had a large number of ships spread around the globe which would be generally categorized by the navy as Second and Third Class cruisers. For large fleet actions these ships were mostly worthless, however they were through to be valuable for two reasons. The first was just the simple fact that it allowed the Royal Navy to show the flag all over the world, this was mostly a political function but did serve to provide an ever present reminder that the Royal Navy was present to protect British commerce. The second reason was that it was believed that other nations, like the French or the Russians, would use similar ships against British merchant ships around the world. Fisher attacked both of these reasons in his quest to purge the naval rolls of the older ships. From a military perspective he believed that they were, basically, worthless. They could not fight ships larger or newer than themselves, but Fisher was one of the group of admirals who believed that they would not be called upon to fight similar ships but instead faster newer ships. These ships would completely destroyer the older ships that the British were using. Here is Fisher’s evaluation in his own words ‘The most demoralising and expensive and inefficient thing in the British Navy is the mass of small, isolated vessels which are known as the “snail” and the “tortoise” classes, which can neither fight nor run away … the chief calamity is the deterioration of the men who serve in them, and the frightful anxiety of every Admiral to get them hauled up on the beach or sunk before the enemy take them!’ From the political, show the flag perspective, well Fisher believed that the entire concept was based on a false premise, and that nobody would miss the ships once they were gone. Again his own words here “Out of 193 ships at present in commission organised in fleet, 63 only are of such calibre as not to cause an Admiral grave concern if allowed to wander from the protection of larger ships. There are among these several ships which should be paid off as soon as possible, being absolutely of no fighting value. […] Of course objections will be raised, and it will be shown that the Navy cannot be run without them, but wipe them out, and in a year no one will remember that they ever existed.”

While Fisher was concerned about the abilities of the ships, his primary concern was around how much they were costing the Navy every single year. Even some of the smallest ships on station around the world cost 12,000 pounds per year just in maintenance. Larger ships like some of the old and obsolete battleships were upwards of 100,000. That is just the cost of keeping the ships afloat and mobile and did not account for the cost of the crews. Fisher wanted to get rid of all of them to free up money and men for his nucleus crew system. The total number of ships that he submitted to be scrapped was 154, and while this entire list was not immediately accepted, a very large percentage of them were. This included many smaller ships, but also some much larger ships like those of the Nile class battleships that had been launched in 1887. Many of these ships were old and slow, but also some of them were just, not good. During the previous decades of technological advances, not every single concept and theory that the Royal Navy came up with was a winner, and there were many ships that were built on these theories that were found to be just bad naval vessels for one reason or another. Often these ships were kept in the reserve fleet, eating away at the budget. While the overseas squadrons were hit the hardest, many of the ships were also stuck in dockyard reserve in the home Isles, these ships were theoretically available for activation for defense, but Fisher considered them worse that useless. There were, of course, many men who did not feel that scrapping all of these ships was the correct move. They all seemed to use roughly the same four arguments to try and make their case as for why. The first reason revolved around British prestige around the world, with the older ships being used for police actions removing them was felt to be a blow to the Navy’s global presence. The second reason was put forward by those who did not believe that Fisher was right about the future state of commerce warfare, believing instead that enemy navies would use similar old ships for that purpose, which Fisher disagreed with. The third reason was based around the idea that all of these smaller and older ships would be required to all of the various jobs that the Royal Navy would call upon them to do during a war, jobs that were outside the tasks of confronting the enemy fleet. The fourth reason was probably the most valid, and it was that they believed that the Navy was not planning to build enough small cruisers to replace those that were being removed. Fisher’s answer to the third and fourth reasons were basically that the ships were useless, and useless ships were useless.

While many leaders could argue and raise concerns about the reasons for the cuts, the finances of the Navy were greatly improved by these moves. In the 1905 Naval Estimates Fisher would cut 3.5 million pounds from the previous year’s expenses, the next year it would drop another 1.5 million, and then a further 450,000 in 1907. In just three years that was a reduction of 5.4 million in the Naval estimates out of the 36 million that it had been in 1904, a significant shift. 845,000 of the annual saving were just from what had been used to repair the old ships, without including provisioning, supplying, or manning them. Scrapping so many older ships also had other advantages, it freed up physical space in the Royal Navy harbors, and more importantly for Fisher’s plans it freed up the officer and men to use in the nucleus crew system.

Along with the changes to the men and the scrapping of old ships the third set of changes were around the strategic purpose and positioning of the Royal Navy. One of this plans was based on the general belief that large, heavily armored battleships would not be the primary focus of navies in the future. This is of course an odd view to be held by one of the primary people responsible for the introduction of the Dreadnought, however before Fisher came to the Admiralty he had a very specific view of what the future of naval warfare looked like, and it was based around the torpedo. Fisher was an advocate for a thing called flotilla defense, which was around around the idea that it was much better to have a whole host of smaller destroyers, cruisers, and submarines for the defense of the home islands. These ships would be far cheaper than larger ships but would be just as effective at denying the seas to enemy vessels. For this denial the smaller ships would depend on torpedoes, which would make it impossible for the larger slower battleships to operate in the area. Complementing these smaller ships, which would be used to control the North Sea and surrounding areas, would be small groups of battle cruisers. The goal for the battle cruiser was to combine the big guns of a battleship with the speed of a cruiser. In ship designs of this period there was a three sided triangle of design that involved speed, armor, and armament. To greatly increase the speed and armament required the sacrifice of the third side of the triangle, armor. Fisher believed that this was acceptable because these battlecruisers would be larger than anything that matched them in speed, allowing them to use their guns effectively against anything they might meet on the seas, and if there was something that was too big and heavily armored for them to deal with then they could simply run away. The primary purpose of these battlecruisers would be for commerce raiding. Now, of course, these views of flotilla defense would not go on to completely change the makeup of the Royal navy, there would still be large ships in Fisher’s navy, the torpedo was just not at a point where it could shoulder the complete burden and so his views on flotilla defense would not come to pass.

Another important key to Fisher’s reforms was the repositioning of the Royal navy’s fleets around the world. The distribution of ships, as it was in 1905, had been determined during the age of sail. At that point the overall speed of ships had been much lower, and this had required a much wider distribution of the fleet’s strength around the globe to be prepared to deal with any problems that might erupt, and to protect trade. However, in the age of steam these same constraints did not exist. In 1904 there were 9 main Royal Navy fleets, and Fisher would reduce them to 5. When this was combined with the scrapping of all of the older ships it represented a total redistribution of the Navy’s power. The five new fleets would be stationed around the five key areas, as defined by Fisher, Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, Alexandria, Gibraltar, and the home islands. The situation for the fleets around the home islands very rapidly became confusing. Before Fisher’s reforms the Mediterranean had been the primary point of Royal Navy strength in the world. It had the 12 newest and most powerful battleships, while the second fleet, the Channel fleet only had 8 older battleships. Fisher wanted to flip this distribution, with the strongest ships being in home waters. At the same time Fisher also created his nucleus crew system, and a more well structured reserve, and these were also made into fleets while the transition occurred. This meant that during Fisher’s tenure there were three fleets in home waters, the Channel, Atlantic, and Home Fleets. This confusing setup was kind of inevitable during the reorganization, but was one of the many things that those who disagreed with Fisher would use to attack his policy.

With such wide ranging reforms, Fisher made many enemies. Part of the problem was that, just like Fisher himself, the oldest and most senior commanders in the Navy had been born in the middle of the 19th century. They had started their careers in the navy when it was sail powered, and some of them simply could not adjust to the new reality. In previous centuries the traditions of the Royal Navy had worked in its favor, by the time of Trafalgar naval technology had not meaningfully changed in centuries which meant tradition provided experience. However, that tradition was now working against the Navy, and some commanders were simply unable to move forward. This group was not all encompassing though, there were many naval leaders who were more than willing and able to jump head firs tinto the new technological world. There were some that made good arguments about why certain policies of Fisher’s were not correct, but there was also a group of officers that simply did not like that Fisher was trying to so drastically change the nave. These concerns would come to a head in 1909 due to the actions of Lord Charles Beresford, which will be our opening topic next episode.