52: Naval Arms Race Pt. 9


We come to the penultimate episode of the series and we discuss a very important question, what precisely was the British navy going to actually do if a war started? They knew they would execute a blockade, but what kind?


  • 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 52. Today we are going to dive into a pretty detailed discussion about what the British thought the Royal navy would actually be doing once a war with Germany started. These ideas would influence how they planned for a war and also the ships that they would built to execute the plan. Near the end of the episode we will discuss how both navies thought a future war would be fought once the two battle fleet came into contact. When thinking about the Royal Navy, it should be evaluated based on its four primary functions. First, to ensure that British shipping, both military and commercial, had full use of the seas around the world. Second, to bring to bear economic pressur eon any nation which the Empire came into conflict. Third, to provide the British Army safe passage over the seas, and then to protect its line of communication and supply. Finally, to prevent an invasion of both the home isles and the Empire’s possessions around the world.

To complete these tasks that were assigned to it, at this point in history the Royal Navy felt that it needed large ships, capital ships. In the case of the Royal Navy these ships came in both the battleship and battlecruiser variety. The battlecruiser had been Fisher’s pet theory from before his time as the First Sea Lord. These were ships that prioritized speed over armor which provided them with speed that could not be matched by the slower, more heavily armored battleships of the battle fleet. However, they still wielded the same guns as the battleships, which made their speed a clear armor for speed swap. As Fisher would say, “Their speed is their protections.” Fisher was successful in kickstarting the creation of these ships, and by 1912 there were enough of them to form a full squadron, which is pretty much the same point where things got messy. In their original conception the battlecruisers were meant to completely overwhelm enemy light and armored cruisers. These cruises would be found doing commerce raiding or scouting for the main Gemran battlefleet. These enemy cruisers would always run away from British Battleships, but the battlecruisers would bre able to chase them down. In this role as a hunter of small ships the battlecruisers were unmatched in their power, and the German cruisers stood little chance at matching their firepower. The problems started when the Germand decided to meet the new Briitsh ships with a version of their own. They would also start building battlecruisers, these would have smaller guns, but they would be roughly the same speed and also possess heavier armor, under the assumption that they would have to withstand fire from the British guns before they themselves came into range. With both sides possessing battlecruisers, their new role was to seek out and destroy the enemy battlecruisers, who would be acting as a scouting force for the main enemy fleet. This went against their original purpose, which was to run away from ships with guns as large as their, and to run toward ships with smaller guns. And now these ships, which were originally designed to use their speed to run away from ships that posed a threat, were now forced to engage essentially their mirror image, which turned their lack of armor from an advantage to a liability.

An increase in speed was not just happening for the battlecruisers, there was also a constant push for greater and greater speed from the battle line, or the large collection of battleships which were at the core of both navy’s fleets. For the British this led to the Queen Elizabeth class, that most famous of classes in the Royal navy. They were a fusion of the armor of a battleship and the speed of a battlecruisers. They mounted 15" guns, the largest guns afloat, but could still match the speed of the battlecruisers. When these ships were first designed and construction began the plan was to build enough to have a squadron of them, and then to send the earlier battlecruisers out of the North sea and away from the primary German fleet. The battlecruises would return to the tasks that they had been designed for, and they would be spread around the world in pairs to defend British merchant shipping. This dispersal was planned for 1915, but then of course the war happened and the plans were scrapped. The events during the war proved that concerns about the battlecruisers facing enemy battlecruisers were very valid, and things would go very poorly for the British battlecruisers at Jutland. On the other hand during the war the Queen Elizabeth’s would perform very well, and even though they were very old ships by the time of the Second World War, after some overhauls they were still very serviceable.

While I listed it fourth on the list of Royal Navy priorities, the threat of invasion was the most serious threat, although it was also recognized as the least likely to occur. In the years before the war there were discussions about how large of a threat invasion really was. The greatest threat came from a surprise invasion, which would be incredily challenging for an enemy to pull off given the necessary concentration of ships and supplies for a successful jump across the channel or the North Sea. However, the Royal Navy did not judge that a surprise invasion was impossible. If it were to happen, then it would mostly likely be accompanied by an attack on the Home Fleet before the official start of hostilities. An important point in these discussions was the relationship between the Royal Navy and the British Army. Everybody recognized that the Navy was the first line of defense against invasion, nobody would dispute that. The questions started when the two services started discussing the likeliness of an invasion, and the likely ability of the Royal Navy to defend against it. The dominant belief in the Navy was that the overall strength of the Royal Navy, and the command of the seas around the world made any invasion possibility incredibly remote, because even if the enemy could manage to land troops, maintaining the lines of supply would be impossible. On the other hand the Army stoked concerns for a kind of ‘Bolt from the Blue’ threat, one that would just happen, totally unlooked for. They used this when trying to secure a larger budget for the Army, soemthing that the Navy would strongly resist. On the German side, they did not every seriously consider an invasion. Tirpitz would call rumor of such a plan ’nonsense.’ He believed that it might be possible to land forces, but it would be totally impossible to keep them supplied, and this would eventually lead him to say ‘…this foolish invasion panic was wholly stuipd and impossible to understand.’

While the threat of invasion represented the most drastic danger, if it happened, the more likely problem was based around commerce raiding. The British Isles were totally dependent on imports to keep the country running and the people fed, around 2/3 of its food supplies were imported, and the same proportion of manufacturing materials were also imported. The protection of this trade was crucial to the war effort, and it resulted in many conversations before the war regarding the best way to ensure its safety. The easiest way to maintain the safety of the shipping was for it to simply not encounter other enemy ships. When the First World War began the Admiralty believed that the best way to achieve this was not to use the convoy system, which would be used only late in the war. Instead they trusted in the spreading out of the ships in the belief that this would limit the damage caused by any single commerce raider. They did not even support the introduction of specific routes for merchant ships to navigate through, under the belief that these would be discovered by the enemy and then the merchange ships would be very vulnerable. There were also security concerns around convoys, since they took time to be concentrated at a port this information could possibly be transmitted to the enemy to arrange for interception of the convoy. The Royal Navy was also resistant to the idea that smaller ships, destroyers mainly, should be taken from the main fleet and sent out as convoy escorts, a concern that would remain until the Americans entered the war. There was a recognition that dispersal of ships would not solve all of the problems, and there would need to be some sort of armed ship present on the merchant sea lanes. This would be achieved not by dispatching ships from the navy but instead by arming merchant ships and converting some merchant ships into auxiliary cruisers. These ships would be armed with guns up to 7 inches and in 1914 there would be 39 of them available to the Royal Navy. It was hoped that this armament would deter the smaller commerce raiders that were espected to be sent out to intercept merchant shipping. It was understood that during the age of coal larger ships could not be sent on commerce raiding voyages dut to the demands of coaling, and the largest that would be present in the sea lanes would be cruisers. This is part of why command of the seas was so important to the Royal Navy, but controlling the seas all over the world the Royal Navy could control access to coal, and the limited range of any of the coal fire dships around the world greatly reduced their freedom of movement. There were some cocnerns that maybe the Germans would send alrger ships on commerce raiding excursions, but this would not have been possible for the German fleet. What the British would learn after the war, after the German fleet was taken to Scapa Flow, was that the German ships were not built for long ocean voyages, they also universally had smaller coal capacities, they had no desalination plants, and their crew berting arrangements were not setup for long cruises. These were all aspects that were maintained in Britihs ships given their more world wide possible theater of operation. It should probably be noted that in these discussions about merchant shipping the submarine only occupied a small piece of the discussions. It was generally believed by the British before the war that the Germans would not use submarines to attack merchant shipping, at least in any major way. Submarines would be forced to sink ships, and it was recognized early on that if submarines had to surface to warn ships of the attack that they would be vulnerable to counter measures. There does not seem to ahve been much concern about the possibility of unrestricted submarine warfare and instead it was believed that the German submarines would almost exclusively focus on attacking British Warships.

Another job of the Royal navy, while it was trying to protect its own martime trade, was to interdict the maritime trade of the enemy. The tried and true Royal navy tactic for this purpose was a close blockade of enemy ports, essentially putting a fleet as close to the enemy’s ports as possible to prevent any merchant ships from entering or exiting. Thsi would be the plan that the Navy would put in place for any enemy before the turn of the century, and when Germany started to be the focus of more naval planning in 1902 the close blockade was still seen as the solution, and in fact was seen as a solution that fit the German case better than the French given the limited access Germany had to the North Sea. Howeve, between the turn of the century and the start of the war several important events happened. In 1902 maneuvers done by the Navy proved that there were serious problems in trying to maintain a close blockade, particularly due to the increasing capabilities of the torpedo. It allowed much smaller ships to attack larger ships, something that was not really possible before, and that put larger ships in great danger when they were stationed in relatively static positions like they would be during a blockade. Then in 1905 the Russo-Japanese war added mines as another serious threat, especially the offensive use of mines. Concerns about these new technologies would put the concept of the close blockade into question, but it would remain official policy for several more years. During this period there were a constant series of events and developments that called into question the practicality of the close blockade, this included failed negotiations with Denmark and Sweden to give the Royal Navy access to the Baltic and the continued increase of the German fleet. It could not be denied that in putting the HOme Fleet, or part of it, so close to the German fleet there was a serious danger of a large blockading force being attacked by a larger German fleet. Even if this more damaging event did not occur there would almost inevitably be attrition, attrition that might rapidly put the Home Fleet at a disadvantage. The debates about a close versus a distant blockade would then be embroiled in the Fisher and Beresford Feud and then also the difficulties with Fisher’s successors. Beresford, for example, did not believe that a close blockade was even possible due to the simple math of the number of smaller ships in the Navy, the distance to the German coast, and the endurance of those ships while on station. Fisher still supported the close blockade, although he was of course incredibly cagey about discussing the Navy’s War Plans with anybody outside of the Admiralty. After Churchill was brought in as First Lord, and Wilson was replaced as First Sea Lord, the large review of Naval plans resulted in the close blockade being officially replaced wiith a policy of what they called an intermediate blockade which would stretch across the North sea.

The plans for the distant blockade did not gain immediate acceptance within the entire Navy in the years before the war, there would always be those that felt that a close blockade would be more effective. Most of this revolved around the idea that the Navy should always be on a more offensive footing, which according to many within the Navy, and also in hindsight, was incredibly reckless. Before 1914 those in favor of a close blockade were unable to make any credible argument that explained how the close blockade should be prosecuted given the resources available to the navy against the resources available to the German Navy. The distant blockade would be confirmed as the plan for the Royal Navy as late as just one month before the war in July 1914, with the plan being described in From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919 by Arthur Marder as “the Fleet was to be so disposed in wartime as to block the exits from the North Sea. There would be a southerly line across the Channel from Dover, depending principally upon the Channel Fleet. A northerly line would extend from the Scottish coasts and islands to Norway, with the Grand Fleet based on Scapa Flow in the Orkneys and a line of unarmoured cruisers (the Northern Patrol, it came to be called) spread between the Shetland Islands and the coast of Norway.” In implementing this distant blockade policy the Royal Navy was settling in for a long war, because there was nothing to prompt a large naval battle like a close blockade might do, but it was safter, and had a much higher chance of eventual success. Almost inadvertently, the Royal Navy had also stumbled into the perfect strategy against Germany. During Tirpitz’s Naval programs the assumption by the German Navy had always been that the British would put in place a close blockade, they were counting on it because it would give them the ability to whittle away at the Royal Navy through attrition. It was only after that attrition had taken place that the High Seas Fleet would be in a position to meet the Royal Navy in battle. After the Royal Navy implemented the distant blockade, and did not play into German hands, the German Navy was pushed into a difficult position without a real plan for how to deal with the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority in the North Sea.

Critical to the blockade debate was the presence and proliferation of the torpedo, and the submarines which carried them. Torpedos had first started to rise in prominence in the 1870s, however there were mnay problems with the technology even up to and including the Russo-Japanese War. During that conflict the Japanese had fired about 370 torpedos, and had hit with only 17 of them, which was not exactly a great level of accuracy. However, in the decade after the Russo-Japanese war there was a tremendous amount of advancement in torpedo technology which greatly increased its range, speed, accuracy, and explosive power. This made the torpedo a real threat to military ships, even the largest ships, and as destroyers got faster and more capable, and as submarines went from almost a novelty to a real weapon of war, the threat of torpedos only grew. Torpedoes exercised and important influence on naval strategy around the world and as torpedoes and their carriers, destroyers and submarines became more capable certain tasks that could be done by large ships were relative impunity were suddenly quite dangerous. One of these was executing a blockade, as we mentioned earlier, a large ship that was always in one small area was at huge risk of falling victim to a torpedo attack. There was also a belief that submarines would play an important part of any fleet encounter in future wars. These fears proved to be mostly unfounded, but countermeasures against submarines were still sought after. Due to the severe restrictions on submerged speed for early submarines the assumption was that the best way to counter them was to push out a destroyer screedn as far as possible in front of the fleet, and thereby to catch submarines on the surface as they tried to position themselves. This is part of why the British prioritized gun size on their destroyers before the war, instead of torpedos. They believed that the goal of the British destroyers was to find and engage the enemy submarines and destroyers, and to prevent them from interfering with the activities of the fleet, instead of engaging larger ships themselves. The concern about submarines is interesting if only because the Germans were quite late to put emphasis on submarine development and construction. It was not until 1905 that the first experimental German submarines were developed, long after submarines had entered service in other navies. Even as late as 1912 they were only building hangful of U-Boats every year, but as would become evident during the war, the submarine in certain situations was very effective, but those situations were generally quite limited at least when it came to engaging Naval ships, merchant shpis were an entirely different matter.