51: Naval Arms Race Pt. 8


The Naval Arms Race reaches its final act, with both sides finally hitting the limits of their economic and political capacities.


  • 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 51. After the very mediocre display that the Royal Navy had presented to the British Cabinet during the Agadir Crisis, and specifically the failure of the Navy to provide the Cabinet with a workable and detailed war plan, it was clear to many that it was time for a change at the Admiralty. This would come int the form of a swap of the First Lord of the Admiralty McKenna and the Home Secretary, a person you may have heard of by the name of Winston Churchill. At the time that this change was made it was not particularly popular, McKenna was well liked in the Navy, but the Cabinet wanted a more forceful political personality involved in Naval affairs to hopefully provide great influence over the actionsin the Admiralty. Of course, if you want a forceful personality, Churchill is exactly the person that you want. He was also known as a person who, at least at this point in history, was pushing strongly for better control over government spending. As soon as he took the job Churchill became involved in even the most minute details of running the Navy. This is just how Churchill worked, when given the opportunity he would give his opinion on anything, and during his time at the Admiralty this meant weighing in on strategic and technical matters that were often not within the purview of the First Lord. In his defense he also was very interested in becoming better acquainted with all of the details, and he would spend a good amount of time at sea during his first two years at the Admiralty. This, when combined with a series of First Sea Lords which were not particularly forceful characters, created a situation where Churchill would have an abnormally impactful reign as First Lord.

After his poor showing during the Agadir Crisis another change was certain, and that was the replacement of Wilson as First Sea Lord. This was also seen as necessary due to Wilson’s resistance to the idea of forming a Naval War Staff. There was not an obvious choice to replace him, but Churchill settled on Sir Francis Bridgeman. Bridgeman had been a supporter of Fisher during his period of reforms, and had been Fisher’s pick to succeed him at the Admiralty. He may have been successful in the position of First Sea Lord, but he did not get along with Churchill, at all, to the point where it greatly hindered their working relationship. The key problem was that Bridgeman firmly believed that the First Lord of the Admiralty was a position that provided oversight, but it should not be one that actively participated in the decision making process at the Admiralty. Churchill was of course all about getting involved. To give an example of how this manifested in the Navy, and why it was seen as problematic and created resentment, lets talk about an incident that occurred in November 1913, which happened after Bridgeman was replaced by Admiral Battenberg, but is illustrative enough to still consider. On the ship HMS Hermes, the first seaplane tender in the Royal Navy, there was a disagreement between the Captain of the ship and one of his young lieutenants. In the disagreement things got a bit heated, and according to the Captain, the Lieutenant told him that he would write tot he First Lord who would sort things out. This was reported up the chain of command, and reached Admiral Sir Richard Poore, who then complained quite strongly to Second Sea Lord Jellicoe. When Churchill found out, he threatened to sack Admiral Poore. This caused Jellicoe to threaten to resign in protest of the First Lord’s meddling in the business of the Navy. He also convinced the Third and Fourth Sea Lords to join him in this threat. The First Sea Lord also almost joined, but was talked out of it by Churchill. Instead First Sea Lord Battenberg was able to bring the situation in hand, and gave the Lieutenant a good lecture, and the Lieutenant was made to apologize to the Captain and the First Lord. Eventually nobody resigned, but you can see the type of problems that Churchill’s very hands-on approach could cause in the Navy when the wrong situation presented itself. After that incident relations between Churchill and the Admirals generally improved, and by the start of the First World War he would be in a much better position thatn in early 1913.

One of the key reasons that Churchill had been put in place, and Wilson replaced by Bridgeman, was so that a Naval War Staff could be created. This had the strong support of just about everybody within the political leadership. The plan was to setup someting like the Army General Staff, and in early 1912 Churchill converted the Navy War Council into an Admiralty War Staff. This was just one of several changes made by Churchill during his time as First Lord. You can criticize Churchill for many things durng these days, but his desire for change was not one of them, and in these changes he was often advised by none other than Lord Fisher. They began a correspondence almost immediately after Churchill found out about his move to the Admiralty, and on October 25th Churchill would write “My dear Lord Fisher, I want to see you very much. When am I to have that pleasure? You have but to indicate your convenience and I will await you at the Admiralty. Yours vy sincerely, WINSTON S. CHURCHILL” Fisher was more than willing to get back into the game, and they would meet and that would begin a relationship where Fisher was the advisor for Churchill, and it was noticeable in many of Churchill’s decisions. One of these decisions was around some Lower Deck Reforms that Churchill would advocate for. He wanted to raise the pay, reform disciplinary measures while at sea, provide more leave, and try and fix some of the promotion problems that plagued the Navy. One unofficial Navy Magazine would print “No First Lord in the history of the Navy has shown himself more practically sympathetic with the conditions of the Lower Deck than Winston Churchill,” Such reforms were important steps taken by Churchill which helped to solve some of the problems that the Navy was having, but also helped Churchill to build his popularity among the sailors.

While the Admiralty War Staff up and running, and some reforms in the process of implementation, Churchill moved onto his next task, cutting costs. There was a general idea in the cabinet, and especially in the Liberal party, that the Navy was wasting some of the money being given to it, and that budget could be reduced. Churchill was well known for his push for reducing government costs, which is part of why he got the job. However, when he arrived in the Admiralty he did not follow through with any drastic cuts, instread he began advocating for increases, large increases. It would be under Churchill’s leadership that the 1912 Battleships would be designed, these would be the Queen Elizabeth class. This would contain some of the most famous British battleships probably ever, and many of them would see service in both world wars. They would mount 15 inch guns and were designed to make 25k nots which would allow them to keep up with the Battlecruisers, and would make them significantly faster than any other British battleships and any German ship that they would be facing. To achieve the necessary power to make this speed they would have to shift from coal fired burns to oil fired which allowed for significant savings in machinery weight, as well as a better power to weight ratio. The switch away from coal also removed all of the backbreaking coal shoveling that could occupy over 100 men, and it also made resupply at sea a relatively simple operation, instead of incredibly difficult. Churchill would support this change, which was also something that Fisher had been pushing for during his days in the Navy. Fisher would say “The use of oil fuel increases the strength of the British Navy 33 per cent., because it can re-fuel at sea off the enemy’s harbours. The Internal Combustion Engine with one ton of oil does what it takes four tons of coal to do!” The shift to oil on the most powerful set of ships that the Royal Navy possessed had important geopolitical ramifications, which were partially realized at the time. Britain had stocks of some of the best coal in the world, it had little endemic oil reserve. This meant that the Royal Navy now had to be concerned about stockpiling oil, and ensuring that there was always a supply somewhere in the world that it could access. To try and helo coordinate the logistical problems of such a large shift Fisher was brought back in and was asked to preside over a Royal Commission on Oil supply.

While Churchill was being brought into the Admiralty to try and reduce costs, in Germany a similar reduction in costs was on the horizon. This was due to the planned drop in construction temp from 4 to 2 in 1912. This reduction in building speed was seen by many, and even some of the stronger supporters of the Germany Navy in the Reichstag as a welcome reprieve. During the previous year, with the 4 temp active the Naval budget was approaching 50% of the Army’s, which was a lot. As the amount given to the Navy increased, resistance to those increases became more troublesome. The discussions about the naval estimates for 1911 were very heated, with the added problem of an election occurring while they were ongoing, an election in which the Social Democrats, the strongest opposition to greater naval spending, did very well in. This initially convinced Tirpitz to change his plans, he had initially planned to introduce a new novelle in 1912 which would address the reduction in tempo, but the growing political resistance to further increases convinced him not to do so. The Agadir Crisis and then the continued building pace out of London caused Tirpitz to once again begin considering changes in 1912. The seeming political failure of Germany during the Crisis had the effect of increasing support for further naval expansion, and Tirpitz was prepared to take advance of this change. Captelle suggested that the Novelle should simply continue the 4 temp forward through several more years, but Tirpitz was slightly more cautious and instead wanted a three tempo. This would give the German fleet a theoretical maximum strength of 41 battleships, which would be 2/3s as strong as the Royal Navy. It would also increase the spending on smaller ships, U-Boats, and Zeppelins. As always, there was also a built in large increase in the estimates for each individual ship to make up for the fact that that construction was getting more expensive all the time. When Tirpitz presented this new Novelle to the Kaiser, for the first time he was hesitant to support it. The Kaiser suggested that the overall scope of the novelle be reduced, out of concern that in the original form it would fail to succeed in making it through the Reichstag. However, even when these reductions were made, it was still resisted by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. The Chancellor was first concerned that a clear 2:3 ratio with the Royal navy would be too provacative, and might prompt the British to increase their building tempo, which would put more pressure on the Germans to once again do the same. Bethmann-Hollweg also did not believe that even the reduced Novelle would pass through the Reichstag, and insisted on further changes. The eventual compromise was a shift from a constant 3 timpo to one that alternated between 2 and three. This would be the bill that would be presented to the Reichstag on April 15, 1912. There was opposition, but the passage of the novelle was once more not in serious jeopardy. Although he did not know it at the time, this would be the last novelle passed before the start of the war, and the last major political victory of Tirpitz’s career. There would be several more proposed Novelle’s before and during the war which would have take a similar form to the previous changes, more ships, bigger ships, better ships. However, with the cost of the ships and crews increasing, Tirpitz did not judge 1913 or early 1914 to be a good time to try and make those changes, and then the war started and there were more important things to spend money on.

What was clear in the last few years before the war was that the German desire to continue to infrease the size of their fleet was waning mostly due to simple economic realities combined with the determination of the Royal Navy to always maintain their more dominant position. However, the German Navy was also assisted by actions around the world, as Tirpitz would say “Every warship constructed anywhere in the world except in England was ultimately an advantage for us because it helped to adjust the balance of power at sea.” The most important actions by other countries were to build dreadnoughts, and in this they were specifically assisted by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navy. By the start of the war the Italians had 3 dreadnoughts in service, 3 more nearing completion, and 4 more on order. The Austro-Hungarians would contribute several more to the Mediterranean. All of these had to be accounted for by the Royal Navy because the three countries were allied, and so a war with Germany seemed likely to lead to a war with Italy and Austro-Hungary as well. The plans for the three countries was to combine their fleets, with the Italian Navy taking the lead in the Mediterranean. This of course did not end up happening, as Italy would jion the Entente in the war, but before the war the Royal navy had to plan to meet the Italian and Austro-Hungarian threat.

In February 1912 one of the last real attempts was made by the British to initiate some kind of arms limitation treaty with the Germans. at this time the British Minister of War Lord Haldane travelled to Germany to discuss the idea directly with the Emperor and Tirpitz. There was support for such discussions on both sides, especially in the political leadership on both sides of the North sea. For example Bethmann-Hollweg supported these talks, as well as many politicians in London. The core to each country’s proposal was that the British wanted the Germans to agree to a 2:1 capital ship ratio, but the Germans were adamant that they would not go below 3:2. The Germans wanted the British tot make a neutrality declaration, basically that they would stay out of any European War between Germany, Russia, and France. This was something that the British did not feel that they could do, if only because at this stage their connections to France and Russia were too strong and there were many very vocal supporters of strong Anglo-French relations. At the meeting between Haldane and Tirpitz the details of the 1912 Naval Law were discussed, with Haldane being given a copy of its exact contents, but these discussions did not really lead anywhere. When Haldane returned to London he was quite positive about the whole experience and hoped that it was just the beginning of future discussions. When the expets at the Admiralty read through the contents of the upcoming Novelle, they were quite concerned, not so much aobut the new ships that were being built but about the increased state of readiness which the High Seas Fleet would be in due to more funding being put into personnel readiness. On march 18th the 1912 Novelle would be put to the Reichstage, where it would pass. On that same day, when Churchill announced the 1912-13 Naval estimates to Parliament he made it pubicly clear that the primary threat to the Royal Navy was Germany, and that it was Germany that was targetted by the construction of new ships. The Naval Arms Race had entered its final stage, with both sides acknowledging their biggest enemy, publicly, and beginning to gear up for war. Next episode we will take a bit of a step back to discuss the technical side of what was being built for the Royal Navy at this point as well as what both sides thought these ships would actually be doing in wartime.