'“It was blockade wot won it”- A naval centenary' by Dan van der Vat (Classics, 1957-1960)

“It was blockade wot won it”- A naval centenary

by Dan van der Vat (Classics, 1957-1960)

As war began in 1914, two forecasts were heard in Britain: it would be “all over by Christmas”; and there would be an Anglo-German Trafalgar in the North Sea. Neither of course came true.

It was hopelessly optimistic, if not dangerously unrealistic, to predict that the world’s best and strongest army would be defeated in under five months. And when the great clash between the world’s two mightiest fleets finally came after nearly two years of war – known to the Germans as the battle of the Skaggerak and to the British as Jutland – the material result fell far short of the anticipated maritime Armageddon. But it was as important as Trafalgar, albeit in an entirely different way - decisive because indecisive. It did not alter the status quo: the British blockade continued.

In the 22 months before the Jutland clash a century ago, the performance of the Royal Navy was on the whole unworthy of the world’s greatest fleet. A German battlecruiser and her escorting light cruiser eluded an ineptly led British Mediterranean Fleet and escaped into the Dardanelles, with catastrophic consequences:  their admiral later sailed on into the Black Sea and shelled the Russian coast, provoking war between Turkey and Russia and cutting the latter off from her Anglo-French allies: they had to manage without Russian grain and could not supply the Russians with arms. A scratch British squadron was roundly beaten in the south Atlantic by Admiral Graf Spee’s cruiser squadron, the first defeat of a Royal Navy formation in a century. Three old British cruisers were sunk in little more than an hour by a single U-boat. A massive assault on the Dardanelles by an Anglo-French fleet failed completely and was followed by the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign.

An indisputable and important strategic success of the Royal Navy in 1914 and beyond was to escort the British Army across the Channel without a single loss to enemy action, even when the army expanded into the millions. The Admiralty also sent a strongly superior force to destroy Spee’s squadron, the first naval victory of the war after three embarrassing months.

ABC is the shorthand version of the causation of the First World War. ‘A’ stood for Alsace-Lorraine, which the French wanted to regain from Germany after their defeat in 1870; ‘B’ was the Balkans, scene of acute rivalries among major powers (Austria, Russia, Turkey); and ‘C’ was capital ships, which Germany, already much the strongest land power, was rapidly constructing as an explicit challenge to British world supremacy at sea.

Britain relied on its navy to defend the home islands against invasion and also to protect a uniquely large and widespread world empire and commerce. It maintained a modest army for colonial garrisons and domestic purposes. Before the war, Germany had no strategic need for a large navy and Britain did not need a large army.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, acutely jealous of British power and prestige, inspired and egged on by Admiral Tirpitz, began to expand his battle fleet at an increasing rate from 1896. Capital or “all big gun” ships, battleships with massive guns, heavy armour and unprecedented speed, were the strategic weapons of the day. When the British woke up to the Germans’ challenge, they simply outbuilt them to stay ahead. Furthermore in 1906 they launched HMS Dreadnought, which gave her name to a class that made all previous battleships obsolete at a stroke. Four months later work began on the Invincible, the first battlecruiser variant, with fewer big guns, less armour and therefore higher speed. Ships of this type were meant to scout ahead of the battleships, but soon became adjuncts and  reinforcements, even substitutes, for the battleships, although in a fleet action they were vulnerable thanks to their lighter armour.

British dreadnoughts had bigger guns and could fire further at a faster rate, but German ships were stronger with the latest Krupp armour and much less space devoted to coal bunkers because they were built with only the North Sea and the Baltic in mind. German guns were lighter than British but their barrels lasted twice as long and their better steel delivered higher muzzle velocity, helping the lighter German shells to penetrate enemy armour whereas British shells exploded on contact with heavy armour without necessarily penetrating. Superior German optics provided a higher standard of rangefinding and therefore accuracy. Where the British favoured mighty broadsides, the Germans favoured carefully targeted shots and salvoes. Thus at Jutland the Germans scored three hits for every two British, while firing rather fewer shells, albeit a tiny percentage of the shots fired in each case.

The German name for the two-day battle reflects the fact that in the afternoon of May 31, 1916, when the two battlecruiser fleets - six British, five German - clashed off the Skaggerak (the passage round Danish Jutland between the North Sea and the Baltic), the Germans, led by Admiral Franz von Hipper, triumphed, scoring at least four times as many hits as the British. Two British battlecruisers were sunk, prompting their commander, Admiral Sir David Beatty, to remark, “There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

A third battlecruiser, Invincible, was lost on the second day, June 1, when there was an untidy and indecisive clash between the battleships, the main bodies of the fleets. Furious fighting erupted between the smaller, faster escorting ships of the two sides, in which the British sustained more losses and damage. As night fell, the Germans disengaged and turned for home. Scheer’s masterly manoeuvring, and breakdowns in communication on the British side, prevented Admiral Sir John Jellicoe from barring a German escape. After dark Beatty had inconclusively engaged a detached German squadron; a British squadron then sighted the bulk of the German ships but failed to attack, having mistaken them for Beatty’s ships. The High Seas Fleet finally swung for home behind the ragged line of the Grand Fleet, which had completely lost touch. Winston Churchill said of Jellicoe that he was “the only man on either side… who could… lose the war in an afternoon.” He managed not to do so. The balance of power at sea was unaffected. Neither side wanted another Jutland, still less a Trafalgar.

Both sides vociferously claimed victory. Tactically the Germans had the stronger claim, having both won the battlecruiser action and inflicted more losses on the British fleet than they suffered themselves. The Grand Fleet lost three battlecruisers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers, reducing it by 111,000 tonnes and losing 6,097 sailors killed, 510 wounded plus 177 taken prisoner. The High Seas Fleet lost 2,551 dead and 507 wounded, along with one battlecruiser, one old battleship, four light cruisers and four destroyers, a total of 62,000 tonnes. The material strength of the British fleet was reduced by 8.84% and the smaller German fleet by 6.79%

But that was not the whole story. The German fleet suffered rather more non-fatal damage than the British and needed three months to return to combat readiness. Jellicoe however signalled on the day after the battle that the Grand Fleet was ready for sea on four hours’ notice. Britain had 24 undamaged dreadnoughts to Germany’s ten.

German naval strategy as drawn up by Tirpitz had been to bring locally superior force to bear against detached British units so as to wear down the Royal Navy until the bulk of its fleet could be taken on with a real chance of victory. The German admirals however were constrained, and in the end hamstrung, by the Kaiser’s enduring fear of losing his beloved ships. The High Seas Fleet never put to sea in strength again, prompting children in Wilhelmshaven, the main German North Sea base, to chant (loosely translated):

Our country needs to care for naught:     

The Fleet is fast asleep in port!

Since German sailors lived in barracks ashore rather than on their ships (except when deployed for action or exercise, always close to home), the effect on morale was severe and ultimately disastrous: widespread naval mutinies in 1918 hastened Germany’s defeat. Meanwhile the Grand Fleet maintained its deadly blockade, causing chronic hunger in Germany and sapping the morale and strength of the civil population. This inglorious contribution makes it possible to argue that the Royal Navy won the war. The strategist Basill Liddell Hart went to far as to claim that the British surface fleet laid the foundation for victory on July 29, 1914, when it stayed together after a review at Portland and sailed in a body, a line of grey steel 30 miles long, to its new main base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney - six days before Britain went to war.

But the Germans possessed a potentially war-winning answer to British supremacy at sea – the       U-boat. Britain was heavily dependent on seaborne imports of raw materials, munitions and above all food. The Germans were therefore in a position to mount a submarine counter-blockade by sinking merchant ships in the north Atlantic. On February 18, 1915, the Germans declared British waters to be a war zone in which any ship could be sunk without warning. In its ruthlessness this decision matched the German army’s violation of Belgium and caused outrage, especially in neutral America. On May 7, the great British liner Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat off the Irish coast and 1,100 people drowned, including many Americans. The clamour of protest eventually drove the German high command to call off unrestricted submarine warfare in British waters in September 1915. Strategically the U-boat U-turn was a huge error because the campaign had shown in seven months that Britain could be forced to sue for peace to avoid starvation.

Yet even under “prize rules”, which required submarines to surface and warn potential victims so they could abandon ship, the U-boats notched up worrying successes, sinking 109,000 tons of shipping in June 1916 and a third of a million in October. In February 1917 the Germans went back to unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking a total of nearly 900,000 tons (a record for both world wars) in April. Britain was reduced to six weeks’ rations.

But that pivotal month of April brought two events of unsurpassed significance. The United States declared war on Germany on April 2; and Prime Minister David Lloyd George went in person to the Admiralty to order the Navy to introduce escorted convoys, always used for troopships, for merchant shipping. In May losses fell by a third; by August they were down to 200,000 tons and the loss rate soon fell much further. The Allies could now comfortably outbuild merchant shipping losses at last while the Germans could not replace sunk U-boats fast enough to sustain the threat. Of all the many mistakes by British admirals, the disastrous resistance to convoy was by far the worst and came close to losing the war.

When the High Seas Fleet sailed into internment in Scapa Flow after the Armistice in November 1918, the Admiralty signalled its thanks to all ships and all rates with these words:

The surrender of the German fleet, accomplished without shock of battle, will remain for all time the example of the wonderful silence and sureness with which sea power attains its ends. The world recognises that this consummation is due to the steadfastness with which the Navy has maintained its pressure on the enemy through more than four years of war, a pressure exerted no less insistently during the long monotony of waiting than in the rare opportunities of attack. [My emphasis]

This is surely a classic early example of “spin”, or at least of unconscious irony and making the best of a bad job. As the Sun might have written in November 1918: It was blockade wot won it”... But Jutland helped; and so did convoy.

- Dan van der Vat


N.B. naval ships measured in tonnes (weight); merchant ships in tons (volume)

Posted by Richard on Sun, 12/06/2016 - 9:43pm