48: Naval Arms Race Pt. 5




  • 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 48. Last episode we discussed some of the reforms put in place by Admiral Fisher after he became the First Lord of the Admiralty. These included wide ranging personnel reforms, a reorganization of the Royal Navy’s strength around the world, and the retirement of over 100 ships that Fisher considered to be obsolete. These reforms would take place at the same time that the British and German navies were beginning to see each other as the greatest threat to their power on the seas. This viewpoint, especially on the German side, would be increased by the introduction of Fisher’s most lasting legacy, the Dreadnought. The Dreadnought, interestingly enough, was not a huge technological leap from the previous generation of British battleships, there would be a few new technologies used, but it was not the technical changes that cause Dreadnought apart so decisively from other naval warships. Instead it was the conceptual and theoretical changes that would cause some of its design changes that would prove to be the most important. It is usually stated that the introduction of the Dreadnought made all existing battleships obsolete, and it did, but mostly because it was a ship that was optimized specifically to destroy other large ships, every other concern was secondary. This would alter how battleships were designed and constructed, the entire design ethos would change, and Dreadnought’s primary design philosophy of big guns and speed would be the standard until battleships fell out of favor after World War 2.

British concerns about German naval expansion would begin after the German Navy Law of 1898. This was the first naval law introduced by Tirpitz, and it called for the creation of a German Fleet which would be led by 19 battleships, and then the appropriate number of smaller vessels. The Naval law of 1900 then expanded upon this number slightly, providing for 26 battleships to be constructed by 1920. Over the next five years the German Navy would begin to build at a rate to fulfill these Naval Laws. The British Admiralty would begin to be concerned in 1901, when multiple ships had been laid down and the first were approaching operational status. A key reason for this concern was that it was becoming clear that the German government was very serious about carrying out it plans. Lord Selborne would write to others in the British Cabinet in late 1901 that “The Emperor seems determined that the power of Germany shall be used all the world over to push German commerce, possessions, and interests. Of necessity it follows that the German naval strength must be raised so as to compare more advantageously than at present with ours.” These concerns would simmer for several years before erupting in 1905 due to concerns in Germany that the British were about to attack. These concerns were prompted by the fact that the British and French had in April 1904 signed the Entente Cordiale which seems to remove the possibility of an Anglo-French conflict. Then in March 1905 the Moroccan Crisis occurred, which was caused by disagreements about Germany’s future in Morocco. At this same time the Royal Navy strength began to be more and more concentrated in home waters, due to Fisher’s reforms. At this point Germany believed that the possibility of a Naval War was likely enough that all German military vessels were recalled to home waters. At this same time there was a huge swing in British public opinion, aimed specifically at the German Navy. The British press, in what would become a constant refrain, criticized Germany for building a navy that was, according to the press, clearly an offensive weapon that was aimed at other European powers. It was clear, again according to the press, that Germany had no defensive need for a fleet, it was a land power. Of course the British had to have a fleet, and it was clearly a completely defensive fleet, this should be obvious to everybody because it did not have a large army with which to invade other countries. German leaders would claim that these accusations were completely incorrect, and that the fleet was required to defend Germany’s colonies and its overseas trade, which was growing by the year. They would continue to use these talking points for years, but of course the British press did not believe them. During these years there was a general fear among German leaders, Tirpitz and the Emperor included, that the British were going to attack them so as to prevent them from completing their naval plans. This feeling of danger and vulnerability was then heightened when they started to hear rumors of what would become the Dreadnought.

Official development of the Dreadnought would begin on December 11, 1904 which Fisher created a committee on designs. This committee was created to work specifically on the Dreadnought, and it contained both civilian and military experts. It would meet for almost two months in early 1905, and during that time it would work out the details of the new ship. The top level items had already been decided by Fisher, 12 inch guns, 21 knots of speed, and as much armor as possible, but within these constraints the committee would work out the details. The most notable outcome of these plans was the main armament. Up until this point no battleship had been equipped with more than 4 12 inch guns, instead there had been an emphasis on devoting both weight and space to secondary armament. The Dreadnought did away with this secondary armament, which was generally made up of 4 and 6 inch guns, and instead it would just foucs everything on the 12 inch guns. With so much focus on these guns, 10 of them could be mounted on the ship. This would allow the Dreadnought to have an 8 gun broadside, which was just straight up double what any other ship was able to bring to bear. The arrangement of the Dreadnought’s turrets, with three double center line turrets and then a double turrent on each side of the ship also gave it the ability to bring at least 6 guns to bear in almost any direction. This made it up to 3 times stronger, in terms of firepower, than any other ship in non-optimal, or non-broadside, engagements. The general talking points for the ship was that ten Dreadnoughts would be equal to 20 pre-dreadnoughts broadside, and 30 pre-dreadnoughts in any other situation.

While the large guns, and the number of them, was the most notable and flashy change for the Dreadnought, Fisher was almost more concerned with its speed. Here is Fisher talking about the importance he placed on speed: “The sole reason for the existence of the old line of battleship was that ship was the only vessel that could not be destroyed except by a vessel of equal class. […] Fundamentally the battleship sacrifices speed for a superior armament and protective armour. It is this superiority of speed that enables an enemy’s ships to be overhauled or evaded that constitutes the real difference between the two. […] It is evidently an absolute necessity in future construction to make the speed of the battleship approach as nearly as possible that the armoured cruiser.” The speec chosen for the Dreadnought was 21 knots, which would make it 2 knots faster than any other battleship in the world. This would give the Dreadnought the ability to choose if and when it would engage an enemy ship. The key to achieving this speed was the use of steam turbine engines. Turbines had been equipped in smaller ships, but were still seen as a very new and untried technology, this would be the first time that they were placed on a large military vessel like the Dreadnought. A turbine was much better than the previous triple expansion reciprocating engine, being generally smaller and lighter than the triple expansion reciprocating engines previously used. The turbines would really shine at high speeds though, and most of the benefits at these speeds related to reliability and durability, here is British Admiral Bacon to explain ‘No greater single step towards efficiency in war was ever made than the introduction of the turbine. Previous to its adoption every day’s steaming at high speed meant several days’ overhaul of machinery in harbour. All this was changed as if by magic.’

Even though Fisher wanted a speedy ship, and one with big guns, he also wanted one that was well protected and for this purpose the Dreadnought would have 5 thousand tons of armor plating, which was 800 tons more than the previous class of British battleship, the Lord Nelson class. Even with all of these improvements over the previous ships, Fisher also wanted something that did not greatly increase either the size or the cost of the ship. This resulted in the Dreadnought being only 85 feet longer, 2 feet wider, 1,400 tons heavier than the Lord Nelsons, it would also only cost an additional 181,000 pounds with a total cost of 1.7 million pounds. The cost of the ship was important to Fisher, he was still trying to keep the overall naval budget under control and he also knew that the ship would be controversial and so he wanted to prevent critics from using cost as a possible angle to prevent the ship from being accepted by Parliament. The keel of the Dreadnought would be laid down on October 2, 1905 and in early February 1906 it was complete. Due to the revolutionary nature of the Dreadnought Fisher wanted to pause all British battleship design until after it had been built and tested, this put an absolute priority on getting the ship to sea as quickly as possible. To accelerate the construction and emphasis had been put on simplicity from the design perspective and now for construction all available resources were put into the ship. At the naval yard a total of 3,000 men would work on the ship during the height of its construction, and other ships were either cancelled or delayed. This included the two Lord Nelson, which were still under construction but were robbed of their 12 inch guns and mountings. These 8 guns were instead given over to the Dreadnought specifically because they were the pieces that would take the longest to build. All of this construction focus would allow the ship, which in February had officially been given the name Dreadnought, to go to sea on October 1, 1906, just a year after construction began. In early October the ship would undergo sea trials, including the first run of 8 hours at full speed on October 8th and then the first full broadside firing test a few days later. At the time this moment was a cause for concern, because nobody really knew what firing 8 12 inch guns simultaneously would do. Some thought that it would damage the ship due to the concussion of the blast, but these theories would prove to be incorrect. On December 11th, 1906 the Dreadnought was accepted into the Royal Navy, and a new age of Naval Warfare began.

Along with the Dreadnought, the Committee on Designs would also create the detailed plans for a new class of ships, which were what Fisher believed was the future of naval combat. The name for this new class of ship would fluctuate, but it would eventually land on battlecruisers. In From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919 Arthur Marder should describe the design principles of the battlecruiser like this: “The raison d’être of the battle cruiser was threefold: to have armoured ships (1) to act as super-scouting cruisers, ships fast and powerful enough to push home a reconnaissance in the face of an enemy’s big armoured cruisers; (2) fast enough to hunt down and destroy the fastest armed merchant raiders, especially the 23-knot German transatlantic liners, which were known to be carrying guns for commerce destruction in war; (3) to act as a fast wing reinforcing the van or rear of a battle fleet in a general action.” The ships as designed by the Committee would seek to accomplish this goals with a displacement of 17,000 tons, roughly 1,000 less than the Dreadnought, and a speed of 25 knots. Much like the Dreadnought these ships would be heavily focused on the big guns, with 8 12 inch guns. One big difference is that these ships would also be equipped with 16 4 inch guns that were designed to deal with smaller ships. In essence the theory was not greatly different than the armored cruisers that they would replace. They were faster, less heavily armed, and had great endurance than the battleships of the main fleet. However, the one big difference is that they would have the exact same guns as the larger ships but with far less armor. This setup would be absolutely fine if they were used for their original purpose, which was commerce raiding, commerce protection, and scouting. The problem with this design, which would only come into play later, was that because they mounted the same guns as the larger ships the temptation to just include them in the list of Dreadnoughts and to use them in a similar way in a fleet action was irresistible. And when used in that way, as not the scouts by the vanguard of a battle fleet the battlecruisers would have weaknesses which would be exposed during the war.

The creation of the Dreadnought did not occur in a vacuum, and rumors of the plans for the ships would begin to make their way back to Berlin in early 1905. At the beginning the exact details were hazy, but the one feature of the ships that the Germans would know about right from the beginning was the presence of a large number of 12 inch guns and that the ship would be somewhere around 18,000 tons. This presented a whole host of problems for Tirpitz. The first problem was such a large change in power for British ships that it was simply not accounted for in the German Naval building plans. There had been some budget increases built in and some allowances made for ships becoming more expensive, but nothing like what would be required to meet a challenge of the Dreadnought. Up until this point the German Battleships had been arguably inferior to the British ships that they were being build against, due to their guns and armor. With the Dread nought representing a huge jump in capabilities the planned German ships would be in an even worse position. There were also some intractable logistical problems that the Germans would have to overcome if they wanted to build larger ships. German dockyards could not build ships as large as the Dreadnought, a problem that could be resolved but only with large investments. Another very expensive problem was that the Kiel canal, the canal that joined the Baltic and North Seas and which was critical to the strategic mobility of the German Navy could not accommodate such large ships. Widening the canal was possible, but it would be very expensive, and Tirpitz was concerned that it would be used by critics of the Navy to derail his plans.

Tirpitz’s plans for 1905 had been to introduce a Novelle to the Naval Law to add in the construction of a few cruisers which would be used for overseas duty. This plan was even announced in February by Tirpitz to the German Budget Commission. It would later be withdrawn because Tirpitz and Capelle decided that the plans for 1906 would have to be changed to introduce a new and much larger novelle which would function as a reaction to the Dreadnought. The new plans would force German designers to look into battleships that were roughly equivalent to the Dreadnought, they would aim for roughly 18,000 tons, somewhere around 22 knots in speed, and an armament focused on only the largest guns available. This would entail a large increase in cost on a per ship basis, which would have to be included in future estimates. It is worth noting that the jump from pre-dreadnought to dreadnought was more costly, relatively, for the Germans because their pre-dreadnoughts had been made cheaper by reducing capabilities, so the jump was bigger on the German side. Even though the Germans chose to mostly just try and match what the British were doing, such a plan represented a more conservative approach when compared with what some German leaders were advocating for at this point. Many wanted not just to match the Germans but to on-up them. Tirpitz was unwilling to make this commitment, still fearful of the possible political consequences. At this stage he was unwilling to give up on his naval dreams entirely, but did not want to jeopardize them in the Reichstag by pushing too far. One great benefit of the Dreadnought, that Tirpitz and the German navy did no fully appreciate at this stage was that by introducing such a drastic step in naval construction the British had given the Germans a gift. The Royal Navy had held a crushing advantage in pre-dreadnought battleships in 1905, but now that those ships were clearly outclassed both the British and Germans would start building dreadnoughts. In this new category of ships the British did not have a crushing advantage, instead they had an advantage of precisely one ship.

Just like Fisher’s other reforms, his plans and construction of the Dreadnought came under criticism from a few different directions. On the non-technical side, many of these concerns were around the idea that I just mentioned, that by creating the Dreadnought Fisher was essentially resetting the board in terms of naval power around the globe. This completely wiped away the Royal Navy’s great, and completely unassailable, lead in pre-dreadnought battleships. There were also those who claimed that by increasing the size, firepower, and expensive of the ships he was forcing the Empire to spend more money on the navy in general. This was like a self-inflicted wound, because the Empire needed ships all around the world to protect it, and if each of those ships was more expensive then maintaining worldwide security would be drastically more expensive as well. This gave other powers around the world the ability to begin building programs at the same tempo as the British, nullifying any advantage that the Royal Navy had. Fisher would claim that if the British did not do it, somebody else would, because you cannot stop the forward march of progress. While this was probably accurate, at the time there were rumors that several other nations were beginning to consider ships much like the Dreadnought, by introducing the new class of ships in 1906 Fisher almost certainly accelerated the process. There were also those who criticized the Dreadnought on a technical level, disagreeing with specific decisions made during the design and construction of the ship. One area of complaint was around the armor provided for the ship. When compared with the Lord Nelsons, the Dreadnought did have more armor, but it was clear from the design that it could have carried more, but it had been kept at a certain level due to a preference for speed. Many believed that it was more important for a battleship to be well armored than to be speedy, which would prove to be absolutely not the case during the First World War. Another area of criticism was the complete lack of any secondary armament on the ship. One group would criticize the removal of these smaller guns, in the 6-10 inch range specifically because they were thought to be more accurate than the 12 inch guns at roughly the same range. It was generally believed that the consistent hits of the smaller guns, even if they did less damage, was an important part of keeping contact with the enemy and keeping them vulnerable to further engagement due to the destruction of the unarmored areas of the ship. To combat this criticism the Admiralty would give information, on a private basis, to several critics about tests that it had done in 1905. These were firing tests done at a range of about 6,000 yards which was considered to be about normal in terms of engagement ranges at the time. Over a span of 10 minutes 2 guns of each caliber, 6 inch, 9.2 inch, and 12 inch were fired at the target as quickly as possible. During that time the 12 inch guns hit the target with five times more shell weight when compared to the 6 inch guns, and 3 times more than the 9.2 inch guns. The 12 inch guns also hit with a higher percentage of their shots, even though they fired less total shells. This did help quiet the critics, but really this disagreement would become a non-issue as the engagement ranges at sea grew in the years before the first world war. Eventually they would reach a point where only the largest guns had the range to compete. There were others who believed that smaller guns were essential not to engage other capital ships, but to combat smaller ships like torpedo boats or destroyers. Smaller guns, with their faster firing rates, made it easier to hit these small ships, and the power of the larger guns were not required. In the years after the launching of the Dreadnought this would prove to be a very valid criticism of the ship and after the original Dreadnought all future ships would be given at least several batteries of 4 inch guns specifically to deal with destroyers. Eventually the 6 inch gun would also make a comeback, in the Iron Duke class built in 1911, but again these were put in place to deal with destroyers, which were getting large enough that the 6 inch gun was required.

One of Fisher’s most outspoken critics during his time at the Admiralty would be Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. Beresford was a well liked Admiral both in the Navy and in the country. During his time in the navy and in command Beresford was really good at some parts of being a Captain and then Admiral. He had great relations with the men, he was known for his seamanship skills, but was not know as a great strategic or tactical mind. When Fisher took over at the Admiralty Beresford was the most senior Admiral and would have taken command of the fleet in wartime. In 1906 he was disappointed when Fisher, who reached the typical retirement age of Admirals made it clear that he did not intend to step down. This frustrated Beresford who was more than likely next in line as First Sea Lord. This would just be the most recent item that Beresford disagreed with Fisher on, because over the previous years as Fisher introduced his reforms Beresford disagreed with most of them. He would initially speak out against Fisher’s scrapping policies, and his emphasis on economic considerations, and then against the Dreadnought. The Navy would enter 1908 as a fractured service, with both Fisher and Beresford having their own followers among the Navy’s leadership. This antagonism bled out into the British press, and a heated battle for public opinion would rage. All of these problems would come to a head during the summer of 1909 when an event, named the Naval Scare of 1909 would occur. This scare would be caused by the greatly increased German building tempo. a tempo that Beresford did not believe Fisher was doing enough to match. Again the disagreements would come out in the Press, and eventually Beresford would retire almost in protest. All of these arguments caused support for Fisher to wane, with many calling for a new leader that could unite instead of divide the Navy. Fisher’s actions were only one of the reasons for all of this heated disagreement, the other was the German building programs which continued to escalate after 1906. These would soon cause the real Naval Arms Race to begin, and it would start with the 1906 Novelle, which will be our topic for next episode.