WWI at Sea

Discussion in 'General Military Arms & History Forum' started by Pistolenschutze, Jul 14, 2008.

  1. I'm about half way through a new book I bought entitled Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie. It is a most interesting read. It is essentially a study of the sea war between Great Britain and Germany during World War I.

    I think the most significant impression I'm getting from reading about the relatively few clashes between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet (or elements thereof, in most cases) is that both navies were hamstrung by political nervous nellies. :D Neither side, it seems, was willing to gamble on a major fleet action in the North Sea. Admittedly, it was the Germans who seemed more unwilling than the British to fight a decisive battle, mostly due to Kaiser Wilhelm's order not to risk his ships, but even the British admiral (Jellicoe) and the British First Sea Lord (Churchill) were afraid to commit to any adventure which would have forced the Germans to fight on a grand scale. Yes, I know, a clash on that scale does eventually happen (at Jutland in 1916) but even that proved indecisive.

    My point here is that big, hugely expensive weapon, such as both these fleets represented for their respective countries, is pretty much useless unless it is committed to battle. A war cannot be won without risk. After Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet never again put to sea and was eventually skuttled at Scapa Flow at the end of the war. What might these great battleships, battlecruisers, armored cruisers, and destroyers accomplished had they boldly sailed up the Thames? One has to wonder. ;)

    Thoughts anyone?
  2. Great topic Pistol.

    I think that one of the main reasons for the reluctance of decision makers to commit their capital ships to battle was the way that governments placed a significant amount of national prestige on owning Dreadnaught type warships. During the years prior to the Great War, it was very fashionable to own battleships and many nations, including a number of small landlocked countries, purchased them in order to become relevant on the international scene. Loosing a battleship in combat would be a serious blow to national pride.

    Also, despite the carnage and advances in technology, WWI was still basically a traditional European style war. No matter who won, the participants would still survive as an independent nation state. The price of loosing may be high, but there would still be a France, Britain and Germany, and therefore the commitment to total war, employing each and every resource as done in WWII, was not something most governments were willing to do.

    Lastly, navies take much longer to develop into effective fighting forces than do armies and nations without long maritime traditions are at a disadvantage when it comes to large fleet actions. The Russians at the Battle of Tsushima comes to mind. This was especially true in the case of Germany which, despite being a naval power, did not have the tradition, experience or mindset for large scale combat at sea that Britain did. Keiser Wilhelm understood armies but not fleets.

  3. Very true, USMC. Battleships especially were looked upon as a measure of a nation's status, power, and wealth from the late 19th century at least up until WWII. Both the British and the Germans entered into intense naval building programs from around 1900 until the outbreak of WWI. The British made that race vastly more expensive when they launched the heavily-gunned, heavily armored, HMS Dreadnought in December 1906. Overnight it made all other battleships of the world obsolete. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Germans were slightly overmatched--on paper--vis-a-vis the British Grand Fleet. In reality though, the two sides were roughly equal. The British had more ships, but as we know now, the German ships were actually better built, faster, and much better armored.

    Essentially true, USMC, though many nations did disappear, and new ones were formed, in the wake of that war and the Versailles Peace Conference. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, ceased to exist, as did the Ottoman Empire, and Czechoslovakia was created as a nation-state. In many, many ways, WWI was a harbinger of what 20th century warfare was to become. For the first time in that war European nations used direct warfare against civilian populations as a means of accomplishing military goals, the Zeppelin bombings of London, German bombardment of undefended English coastal towns, and the German treatment of civilian populations in Belgium certainly serve as examples in point.

    Kaiser Wilhelm was perhaps Germany's own worst enemy at the time. ;) He was an arrogant and very obstinate ruler, and did not believe Britain would dare enter the war against Germany, nor did he appreciate the risk he was running with the United States and the possibility of its entrance. There is simply no doubt that the German Army was the finest on the planet when the Great War broke out, but like a later German with a funky looking mustache, he over-estimated the ability of Germany to win an all out war with the limited resources available to it. Another factor was that deep down Wilhelm did not really understand what Alfred Thayer Mahan was saying. The real issue was control of the sea, not merely having a fleet in being.
  4. mrkirker

    mrkirker New Member

    Jul 13, 2007
    Hmm, I don't think the High Seas Fleet would have been able to "boldy sail up the Thames"! The Grand Fleet might have had something to say about that.

    Nimitz expressed a view that fleets provide a certain physiological value, even if they are not commited to an action. If nothing else, opposing forces must be used to contain them.

    Still, it would have been interesting to have viewed the outcome of a full fleet action with modern navies, such as almost happened at Jutland. What Jutland might have been, provided effective communication and cooperative weather, can only be imagined. I would really enjoy watching a 'war game' evolve with that topic!
  5. As an interesting side note, I read a book on the Great White Fleet sent on the cruise to circumnavigate the globe by Teddy Roosevelt. During one of the earliest ports-of-call in, as I recall Trinidad, the officers and sailors were surprised by the lack of interest of the locals. it turned out that the HMS Dreadnaught had made port there a week or two earlier and the essentially obsolete ships of U.S. Navy were rather underwhelming.

    My main point was about the major nations as far as it went, but your development is dead on. In the shadow of the major powers, smaller nations were essentially expendable. Fortunes of war you know, old chap. Wot?
  6. Battleships and battlecruisers continued to "show the flag" well after World War I, USMC, often giving a false illusion of power. Perhaps the best example of that was the British battlecruiser HMS Hood built in the 1920s. A sleek and beautiful ship of war she was, but tragically under-armored. What the British did not realize was that the day of the battlecruiser, with its heavy, battleship-like guns, high speed, but light armor was well past, if indeed it had ever existed. Jackie Fisher was the moving force behind the battlecruiser concept, and perhaps had the battlecruisers been used as he originally envisioned--as counters to German commerce cruisers (Kreuser Krieg) and as a quick-strike arm of the fleet--they might have had a purpose. Instead, during WWI they were looked upon largely as ships-of-the-line, able to slug it out with the more heavily armored battleships of the German High Seas Fleet. The result was often tragic, as indeed it was at Jutland. It was almost like arming a destroyer with 8 inch guns and sending it up against heavy cruisers. Battlecruisers could hit hard, and could usually manage to run away, but if they got within range of a battlewagon's guns, a few hits often did them in. That is indeed what happened to Hood when she faced Bismarck during the Battle of the Denmark Straight in 1941. Bismarck's 15 inch projectiles penetrated to her magazines and she literally blew apart. Only three souls survived her sinking.
  7. mrkirker

    mrkirker New Member

    Jul 13, 2007
    The loss of the Hood can be blamed in large measure on British lack of readiness to spend money on conversion of older ships during the lean years of peace time budgets. She was known to be vulnerable to plunging fire, but during the pre-war years nothing had been done to streghten her. When the war arrived, it was too late. As long as she could operate, she could not be spared.

    The 'head on' approach used in the engagement with the Bismarck denied use of the aft turrents of both the Hood, and the new Prince of Wales. The last turn of 20 degrees would have allowed full fire to be employed, however before the turn was completed the Hood disintergrated, a victum of plunging fire reaching a magazine. Success in damaging the Bismarck would have been doubious at any rate in this engagement, as the Prince of Wales, pressed into service without working out various mechanical difficulties, was able to fire only three guns a salvo.
  8. Quite right, Pistol. It wasn't until 1941 when Admiral Yamamoto shocked the world's naval establishment with an until then unproven weapon called the aircraft carrier that the battleship fell from the role as King of the Hill. Even then it was, and still could be, a force to be reckoned with, especially as a platform for fire support during amphibious operations.

    Gunboat Diplomacy, especially as practiced by the United States, is really quite an interesting field of study. Teddy Roosevelt honed "showing the flag" into a fine art and he certainly loved his battleships for that purpose. I think that the last time a battleship was used as an instrument of "showing the flag" in classic American style Gunboat Diplomacy was of the coast of Beirut in 1983.

    I think it may be best said that the biggest foible of the battlecruiser was the tendency of admirals to focus to much on the "battle" part of the name and not enough on the "cruiser" part.

    Your points are exactly right but, as Donald Rumsfelt said, "You go to war with the army (or in navy) you have, and not the one you would like." By the time of WWII the cruising speed of modern battleships had made the battlecruiser essentially obsolete. There was however a breech that needed to be filled and the Hood and Prince of Wales were there. I think the biggest problem was in the tactics employed by the Royal Navy. There were a number of mistakes made by the British on several levels that, when the Hood slapped leather with the Bismarck, allowed German guns and fire control to come out on top, and with tragic results.

    Back to the Great War and one question that has always interested me; why was the German High Seas Fleet, as a whole, largely ineffective when the U-boat service and surface commerce raiders showed far better results? Yes, the German High Seas Fleet was essentially bottled up by the British Grand Fleet, but I think there were two much deeper obstacles.

    One, especially when compared to the Royal Navy, Germany did not have a long naval tradition that supported a command structure for large fleet actions. German sailors were well versed in their craft and German industry produced outstanding warships, but molding a fleet into a cohesive fighting force takes many decades. The Royal Navy, although flawed, had century's of fleet operations to develop a professional command structure had only 50 or 60 years at best.

    Two, and I think most importantly, the High Seas Fleet as a whole was subjected to receiving operational direction from the highest levels of the German military. In contrast, U-boats and commerce raiders were far less prominent and their commanders, for the most part, simply given broad directives and left to their own discretion how to accomplish the mission. They then took the initiative and it was up to the British to react to their actions.

  9. mrkirker

    mrkirker New Member

    Jul 13, 2007
    Back to the Great War and one question that has always interested me; why was the German High Seas Fleet, as a whole, largely ineffective when the U-boat service and surface commerce raiders showed far better results? Yes, the German High Seas Fleet was essentially bottled up by the British Grand Fleet, but I think there were two much deeper obstacles.

    Seaborne operations were stalemated, because the H/S Fleet suffered from inferior numbers. Occupying the interior position, the H/S Fleet did not offer battle, preferring to nibble away at the British fleet when ever they could meet on somewhat equal terms. This strategy seemed to foster a 'no risk' mentality among the commanding officers, preventing them from attempting actions that offered anything beyond minimal risk.

    Was the effect of surface raiders that great? There was a level of early success with the surface raiders, however within time the Royal Navy ran them to the hole, either sinking or holding them in port.

    Ahh, the U-boat! I think the U-boat enjoyed such (initial) success because there were no immediate counter-measures to their threat. It was an advanced weapon, the perfect commerce raider. Commanders were allowed broad discression in picking their targets and timing their attacks, unlike the necessarily structured attack plans that surface action fleets required. It wasn't until the middle of 1917 that a means of averting defeat through submarine attacks was employed, the convoy. With the employment of convoy, allied shipping losses began to fall. (More than 2/3 of U-boat losses were sunk during the period of intensive convoy operations.) By mid-1918, the U-boat had ceased to be a serious factor except to the vessels that continued to sail independently.
  10. TranterUK

    TranterUK Guest

    This is a very interesting thread. I am sorry I have not read more on the subject, and am unable to give any valued opinions.

    It is curious because I have read several books on the first wars land campaigns, but nothing on the sea battles of the period. I must correct this soon.
  11. mrkirker

    mrkirker New Member

    Jul 13, 2007
    Dog-gone it, Tranter! I was hoping that you could share insight from the UK perspective.
  12. TranterUK

    TranterUK Guest

    Well hang on there mrkirker, I said I was unable to give any valued opinions. That dose not mean I don't have some anyway. :)

    For starters it's clear the British had the best and most professional navy in the world at the time. As indeed we had done for centuries. Thrashing the French, Spanish and various others at one time or another.

    The German Navy were understandably reluctant to get involved in a straight battle, thinking they would loose most of their ships.

    Warfare of course is never straight forward. The British commanders lost one opportunity after another. The gunnery on both sides fell well short of their potential. In the British case I think a high rate of fire had replaced accuracy at the top of the list. This also led to dangerous lapses on safety, such as leaving flash doors open when sending charges up to the guns.

    There were also unforgivable failures to co ordinate fleet moves, I think at Jutland one part of the British fleet had moved too far from the rest to read the flag signals, which said 'come back quick'.

    As I said, not really knowing a subject dose not mean you cant have opinions.
  13. You could go into politics Tranter...
  14. Britain's naval tradition is undeniable, Tranter, but the irony lies in the fact that the Germans actually had better ships (more heavily compartmented and with thicker armor) and their gunnery was extraordinary, much superior to the British as they proved time after time. At the Battle of the Dogger Bank in 1915 (Beatty's battlecruisers v. Hipper's battlecrusiers), the British scored less than 2% hits for well over 1,000 12 and 13.5 inch shells fired. Hipper's gunners did at least twice as well and darn near sank HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship. By World War I, the British were concentrating more on rate of fire and weight of shot than on accuracy. This proved a costly mistake. At Dogger Bank Beatty should have sunk at least three of Hipper's ships, instead he sank only one, and that was essentially a heavy cruiser rather than a battlecruiser.

    I must agree with you there. The British tradition of naval excellence (entirely deserved at that point or not), stood them in good stead throughout the war. The Germans believed it would be suicide to face the Grand Fleet in a free-for-all and pretty much avoided it. When it finally did happen, at Jutland, the Germans came out the tactical winners, not the British. Britain actually lost more ships than the Germans, though it was indeed a strategic victory for the British. The High Seas Fleet returned to port and never again challenged Britain's control of the North Sea or the Baltic.

    Very true on all counts. Another factor that affected both sides was the fear of both mines and submarines. The British were especially fearful of German submarines getting close enough to puncture those beautiful battleship hulls, or of the Germans dropping mines in the water during any tactical retreat. The main reason Jellicoe lost his chance to inflict serious damage to the German fleet at Jutland was his fear of precisely that. On the other hand, Jellicoe perceived his job not to destroy the German fleet, but to contain it. As Churchill said after Jutland, Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in a single afternoon.
  15. TranterUK

    TranterUK Guest

    It has been remarked upon before now USMC.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 15, 2008