49: Naval Arms Race Pt. 6


Between 1906 and 1908 the Germans became very serious about their naval building program, which prompted a response from the leaders in London.


  • 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 49. Last episode we discussed the design and creation of the HMS Dreadnought and then the German reaction to it. Today we are going to look at the effects that the ship had on German Navy construction. One of the major criticisms that would be levied against Fisher when he introduced the Dreadnought was that it presented a new problem for the British. They had plenty of pre-dreadnoughts, more than any nation could hope of building, but they were now all but obsolete, and so if the a foreign power started focusing on building dreadnoughts they could pose a challenge to the Royal Navy. Germany would do exactly this, and the period from 1906 to 1914 would see the naval arms race reach its height. Today we are going to look at the two most important German novelles, or amendments to the Naval Laws. Both of these novelles greatly increased the pace at which the Germans were building ships, both cruisers and battleships. After we discuss these novelles we will then discuss the response in London, as the British came to realization that the threat to their naval supremacy from Germany was very real and the Germans were not just going to stop building.

Before 1906, even before the precise specifications of the Dreadnought reached Berlin, there were already problems with the existing German building program. To put it simply, the ships were costing much more than what had been anticipated in the previous estimates in 1904. These cost overruns were occurring even though there was a serious effort by Tirpitz to keep costs under control. These efforts were often at odds with pressure from the Kaiser and the naval designers to create bigger, faster, and more heavily armed ships. Instead, Tirpitz would always justify his smaller and cheaper designs under the theory that the number of ships was more important than the strength of each individual ship. I don’t know that he ever used the term, but he was basing this view on the theory that smaller guns, if there were more of the, could fire enough shells to make up for their smaller size and would be more disruptive to an enemy’s attempts to answer. Tirpitz’s entire building program was based on raw numbers, and so he often focused on the number of battleships even if the individual ships were forced to sacrifice size, armor, speed, and caliber of the guns. These decisions were made in a pre-dreadnought world though, and so this type of thinking was not totally unorthodox. At this point the battleships of all navies had fewer big guns, and a larger number of secondary and tertiary guns which were designed under the theory that a bunch of smaller guns were just as powerful as a smaller number of larger guns.

The 1906 Novelle, relative to the one that came before and the one that would follow, was quite small. The only new ships that would be added to the construction list were six additional cruisers which were justified by the increased need for Germany to reach her colonies. These were large armored cruisers and they would be the last of the pre-battlecruisers built by Germany. Just as important for the German building plans, the 1906 novelle increased the estimated cost of all ships to try and keep up with new designs. This would add another 900 million marks to the total estimate of the building plan that had been initially created in 1900.

When it came time to get the Novelle through the Reichstag Tirpitz was the beneficiary of world events. The Moroccan Crisis of 1906 game additional impetus for the German navy to expand, and when the Novelle came up for a vote in May it would pass with a large majority with very little debate. However, even before the vote occurred in the Reichstag, Tirpitz was already looking forward, to the next Novelle.

The driving force behind the initial planning for the next Novelle, which did not have a specific timeframe in mind, was the desire to shorten the lifespan of the previously built ships. This would change the expected lifespan from 25 years to 20 years, which was seen as important due to the speed at which naval technology was advancing. However, a shorter lifespan did not change the desired size of the fleet, and so if ships were going to age out faster, construction plans would have to change immediately. The three tempo that was in place in 1906 would have to be extended if the Navy wanted to reach the desired number of ships before it had to start replacing them. There were also discussions of increasing to a four tempo at least for a few years. The new novelle would also, as always, adjust the individual ship cost upwards, because even before the 1906 Novelle was signed it was clear that the numbers within it were once again simply too small. With planning for the next changes, the question once again became when to introduce it into the Reichstag. Tirpitz felt that early 1907 was too soon, but early 1908 was probably going to be the end of the Reichstag term, which made for political volatility. This meant that Tirpitz was targeting either 1909 or 1910 for the next set of changes. This novelle would go through an almost total rewrite after exact information was received about the Dreadnought and the Invincible.

In regards to the 1906 Novelle, due to its construction plan focused on cruisers, the information that arrived about the Invincible was the most important. At the time of its creation the Invincible was the first in the line of what would come to be known as battlecruisers, but it was just treated like a cruiser at the time. It was therefore also compared to German cruisers that were built at the same time, and in this comparison the German ships did not perform very well. The most obvious difference was the guns, with the Invincible mounting 8 12 inch or 30.5cm, guns. In comparison the Blucher, built at roughly the same time has 12 guns, but they were only 8in or 21cm. This was a drastic difference, and that is before you consider the fact that the Invincible was also larger and faster than the Blucher. If the German Navy only had cruisers like Blucher then they would be at a serious disadvantage, but to match the new British ships meant a very, very, large increase in cost. Tirpitz had already accepted plans for a German Dreadnought with 10in, 28cm guns, and the plan was to up this to 30.5cm in 1908 but to do so the cost had to drastically increase. Increasing the size of the guns meant increasing other dimensions as well, with the total result being a ship with a displacement that was 20% larger. It would also cost 25% more, going from 33 million to 44 million marks. To mount similar guns on a cruiser, even allowing for less armor, would cost a similar amount. This was a difficult pill to swallow for the German navy that was already constantly running up against cost overruns, and with a budget that had just months before passed through the Reichstag. A similar problem was happening in the Royal navy as well, battlecruisers were not proving to be any chaper than the dreadnoughts that they would work alongside, and that would cause problems that we will discuss shortly.

Even though some of the changes made in reaction to the Dreadnought had made it into shops before 1908, it would only be in that year that the real alterations to German Navy Strategy would be made. It was also in 1908 that the true naval arms race, and not just Germany trying to catch up, began. It would start with the new desins for ships. For the purposes of this podcast these ships are important because it would be the ships that came out of the 1908 designs that would form the core of the German fleet during WW1, and many of the ships built during this time would be familiar to anyone who listened to the Jutland episodes. If Tirpitz, Capelle, and the Kaiser wanted to match the British in terms of ship design, it was going to cost a lot of money. The British were already beginning to transition to 13.5 inch, 34.3cm guns while the Germans were still using 28cm guns. The designs submitted by the Navy’s designers contained larger guns, and larger costs. There were some concessions that had to be made on the 1908 ships due to costs, specifically by leaving turbine engines out of the 1908 battleships, which helped a little in terms of cost, but not much. Each battleship would cost 11.5 million more than its predecessor, up to that 44 million mark number. Cruiser costs increased 16.5 million per ship. These cost increases were simply unavoidable if the German Navy wanted to try and match the Royal Navy. Tirpitz accepted this, and had new designs and detailed costs prepared for the Reichstag for another increase in the naval budget. The key to the whole plan, at least from the beginning of planning for the 1908 Novelle, was that the next set of changes would not contain any changes to the tempo or total number of ships to be built. This was considered important due to the concerns about both international and internal outcry if it was seen that the Germans were being more aggressive with their building. It was a bit easier to explain away just increasing the cost of the ships. However, during the planning stages for the 1908 Novelle, the discussions about increasing to a four tempo, both in the Navy and the government began to increase.

Tirpitz’s initial rejection of an increased tempo, especially when it was first suggested in 1906, was due to his ever present fear of a preventative strike by the Royal navy. This was sort of a bogey man that oftne seemed to influence Tirpitz’s actions although there was no evidence that such an actions was ever planned by the Royal Navy. At some point in late 1907 this changed though, and he would begin to advocate for its inclusion in the 1908 Naval Novelle. This four tempo, that is 3 battleships and one battlecruiser per year for four years, was justified as a way to keep up with the British and to prevent any preventative strike by the Royal Navy. Tirpitz would also justify it with the idea that the German Navy could match the Royal Navy in these new types of ships, and if they fell behind than they would almost certainly never catch back up. He would say “it would have been irresponsible if the naval administration did not seize upon these favorable circumstances and offer to introduce a proposal which, without departing from our old goals, would realize them faster.” The one thing that Tirpitz did not properly predict, was the British response. Intrinsic to the idea that increasing to a four tempo would allow the Germans to catch up and then keep up with the Royal navy was the accompanying idea that the British could not match or exceed that tempo. In this Tirpitz greatly underestimated both the financial resources, and the political resolve, of the British government. When the four tempo was introduced to the German public it was received very positively. The majority of the political leaders approved it, although of course some rejected it, and others wanted more. The only remaining task was to send the Novelle, with the massive ship cost increases and the four tempo, through the Reichstag, which was mostly a formality given its popularity.

Even before the law was put in place, Tirpitz was already putting the 4 tempo into action. Orders were placed with the ship builders six months before they usually were. Krupp began making additional orders of nickel, a critical component in the creation of armor plate. News of these actions were destined to reach London, and in fact the British would learn of it from a German newspaper, which reported the new orders on October 1908. 1908 would obviously not be the end, and very soon after the passage of the 1908 Novelle, as always, discussions began about the next one. This one would targer the drop in tempo from 4 o 2 ships that was planned for 1911. During all of this time it is important ot note that there were very few questions placed upon Tirpitz by the political leaders of the country. There was kind of this general belief that he was the naval expert, and he knew what he was doing. The fact that he was continuing to ask for more and more money, and larger and larger fleets, without the previous ships solving any of the problems that he was claiming that they solved, did not really come up. It would only be later that politics and economics would begin to really push back against Tirpitz’s building plans. But that would only be after several more years of frantic building while trying to keep up with the pace set by the British. In London the concerns about the growing German fleet were growing. They learned about the increased tempo from that same German newspaper article and discussions began in London about what to do. For the first time in several generations there was a serious threat to the Royal Navy’s supremacy of the seas, and when it was clear that the Germans were not just going to stop their construction the question became, what should the response be?

In 1905 the Royal navy was operating on a two power standard, that meant that they maintained more ships than the next two more powerful navies in the world combined. During the previous decades this had been the Russian and French fleets. There was also some margin, of about 10%, built in above these two, due to concerns that a war with both of the navies might leave the Royal Navy too weakened to defend the empire. During the pre-dreadnought period this policy was expensive, but for the most part manageable due to the long service life of the ships and the large numerical advantage that the British had built up during the Victorian period. However, even before the introduction of the Dreadnought there were concerns about the amount of money being spent on the navy, and those concerns were being voiced more publicly every year. To combat these concerns, beyond just the simple argument that the Empire needed a large navy to ensure its military survival, advocates for a large navy pointed to other benefits. For example, the shipbuilders who actually created the ships, and the entire supply chain system for those shipbuilders, created a lot of jobs. Thousands of workers were employed in the industry. The shipbuilding companies were also not really seen as ripping off the government, as there was always a tremendous amount of pressure to cut construction costs, especially as the overall cost of the ships increased. There were also efforts to find additional sources of revenue for the Royal Navy, one of these being from the dominions. The idea was that since the Royal navy was built in part to protect the Empire and and the dominions, it seemed only reasonable to have the dominions foot some of the bill. There would be an increase in 1902 in terms of money sent from these areas to help fun the Royal Navy, and they more than doubled their contributions to 328,000 pounds. However, after this date the desire to get financial help from overseas clashed with the plans for the Royal Navy that saw more of its power focused in home waters.

All of these conversations and concerns were occurring in the pre-dreadnought period, after the Dreadnoughts introduction the budget of the Royal Navy would explode, and between 1907 and 1914 it would increase by 70%. This was even with efforts by some political leaders to keep costs under control. The Dreadnought made the entire situation a bit more confusing for the British planners. To understand why it is important to remember that while ships were being started at a certain rate each each, the three and four tempo I keep talking about, each ship took several years to complete. This meant that a ship that began construction in 1905 may not have been completed until 1907 or 1908. During the first two years after the Dreadnought, that is after it was finished but before the German 1908 Novelle, the Royal Navy was in a strong position, but due to construction times also one that was politically delicate. The Navy, and some political leaders, wanted to keep a four temp of construction going for several more years, but it was slightly difficult to justify this pace due to the lack of competition. There was a general recognition that the dreadnought was superior to anything else afloat, but the Royal navy was the only navy in the world building them. In 1906 there was one dreadnought completed, three more starting construction and three battle cruisers that were approaching halfway done. During 1906 no other navy had even started the construction of a similar dreadnought. This meant that the Royal navy would only be allowed to lay down two ships in the 1907 construction period. There were many people in Britain who saw this reduction in capacity as a dangerous precedent, and they were concerned that if the pace of construction slowed, it would not be increased in the future. This hesitancy to build more ships would have to be reconsidered when the news of the German building program specified under the 1908 Novelle, and the four tempo planned for the 1908-1911 period became known in London.

While there was a lot of concern in British politics when the new of the German building program, a similar level of panic was not felt in the Admiralty. Fisher favored a very cautious approach to meet the German threat. He knew that the Royal Navy already had a numerical advantage, or would once ships that were under construction were completed, in fact there would be four Dreadnought battleships and three battlecruisers in service in the Royal Navy before even the first one from Germany was launched. It would take years of the Germans outbuilding the British to close the gap. Fisher instead wanted to wait, to see what the Germans were designing and building before launching into a larger building program. As part of this he wanted to make sure that whatever the British spent their money on would one up whatever the Germans were building. He therefore suggested another 2 tempo year in 1908, he might have even went to just one battlecruisers, but there were concerns that any fewer than 2 ships would cause difficulties for British manufacturers. This suggestion from Fisher, with the implication that in 1910 the British would have 7 dreadnoughts and four battlecruisers and the Germans 3 and one respectively, was accepted by the Sea Lords. The construction program would also have six unarmored cruisers, 16 destroyers, and money for submarines and all told it would only increase the naval budget by about a million pounds, which they felt was quite reasonable. By the time that this suggestion can under discussion on the political side there was growing concern among many groups that it simply would not be enough. Some suggested a 4 tempo, others 6, there was even growing support behind an 8 tempo for 1909. Most of what was happening here is that critics of the slower tempo were taking the German 4 tempo and extending it out almost indefinitely, which was not the German plan. Under the four tempo they would have about 20 dreadnoughts by the summer of 1915. Even if the British matched the German building plans after 1909 they would still only have about a third more, which was seen as simply insufficient. This is how the number for discussion became 8, a straight up 2 keels to 1 ratio for dreadnoughts. This suggestion, and the mathematical simplicity of it, gained a lot of support among groups around the country. They even used the idea that if it was publicly announced, an anything-you-can-do-we-can-do-twice sort of policy would actually cause the Germans to back down. They wanted to invest now in a statement that made it seem hopeless for the Germans to even try.

This debate about what to do for naval construction in 1909 caused a political crisis in London. Asquith and the liberal party refused to allow for the outright construction of 8 ships in a single year. It went against their policies of trying to spend less on armaments and more on problems at home. However, the conservatives in parliament were adamant that anything less than an 8 tempo left the Royal Navy at risk. Asquith attempted to compromise, 4 ships in 1909, and then if necessary 4 more would be started by April 1, 1910. Asquith would try and provide assurance that if they were necessary the 4 would be constructed: “Without in any way forecasting what the British shipbuilding programme for next year may be, I will say without the slightest hesitation that if we find at the time that there is a reasonable probability of the German programme being carried out in the way that the paper figures suggest, we should deem it our duty to provide not only for a sufficient number of ships, but for such a date of laying down of such ships that at the end of 1911 the superiority of Germany which the Rt Honourable gentleman foreshadows would not be an actual fact.” Even this compromise, with the right number of ships but some of them still contingent on events, was not enough for the naval advocates. The confrontation even led to Lord Balfour, of the conservative party, moving a vote of censure forward in Parliament, which was defeated by only barely. As it happened, as it feels like it so often did during this period, these domestic disagreements were overtaken by international events. Austria and Italy, which were both at this point allied with Germany, announced plans to build 4 dreadnoughts each. Another 8 dreadnoughts in play, and in the Mediterranean an area so important to the British Empire, caused Asquith to agree to guarantee the start of those four additional ships by April 1, 1910. The Naval Arms race was well and truly started.