Regular readers will know of my interest in history in general and of naval history in particular. Last week, as part of North Berwick’s Fringe by the Sea, I gave a couple of talks on the former to be delighted and surprised by one attendee who, knowing I had a further talk on The Battle of May Island, generously gifted me a 1963 hardback first edition that filled a gap in my library. Reading it rekindled my deep suspicions about the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers now building for the RN for some £7bn.
The book is Don Everitt’s The ‘K’ Boats and is the shocking, if eclectic, history of a class of disastrous submarines built by the RN during WWI. I had read it decades ago as a paperback, using much of its later material in my talk. But re-reading it refreshed me on the earlier section when the boats were being conceived, designed and trialled.
I impute no incompetence at any of the half-dozen major and hundreds of minor contractors involved in the aircraft carriers—any more than the similar number involved in the 21 K-boats built. But you do wonder at what they are/were asked to do. No amount of clever design, ingenious engineering or stout seamanship can compensate for a daft idea from what CPO Pertwee once referred to as ” The Admirality”. I can’t prove parallels between the K’s and QEII’s to be true at this stage. But consider the following:
In 1913, Britain was, in theory, at the peak of its global power. But it was financially strapped and building a fleet of dreadnoughts had severely strained the naval budget, not least because they required scouting cruisers, defensive destroyers, major docking facilities around the world, along with coaling stations, etc, etc. Worst of all was a paranoia that some new-fangled weapon like the submarine would render the lot vulnerable.
Problem was that subs of the day were new and had weak power plants. Submerged they could only make a few knots; on the surface they couldn’t do much better than half the fleet’s 24 knots. Never one to accept a situation he disliked, as First Sea Lord, Churchill bullied his Admirals into rectifying it. Fisher declined, citing inadequate technology. When Fisher left, having fallen out with him over the Dardenelles, Winston had his way.
Designed to make 24 knots, the ‘K’ class of submarine seemed an answer and were then rushed into production. Bigger than a destroyer at 2,600 tons, they were over 120m long, heavily armed (for a sub) with 10 torpedo tubes and three deck guns. Production was pushed with urgency, so no prototype was built. It was only on trials that shortcomings in the concept became apparent. That, in itself, is understandable. But the degree to which they were systmatically covered up, ignored and generally swept under various carpets was criminal. Because many men died; none of them at the hands of the enemy.
The basic problem, as Commodore Submarines Sydney Hall observed, “it is a bold advance of 300 percent in design” since they used steam. “So what?” you ask; “all ships of the day used steam.” Yes—but not underwater. Think about it. Dealing with the matter of funnels, ventilation, heat, condensation, boiler blowback and a host of things made them the most complex machine built to date and over a dozen holes in the hull of varying shape/size.
Read the book for a catalogue of trials failures and accidents, including several uncontrolled dives to the bottom, one of which had the future George VI on board. Their shape, length and weight made them almost impossible to trim; they were so long the bow could hit the bottom while the stern was in the air, propellers thrashing because of pressure differences. And, limited by sealing so many holes to 50m maximum depth, they were vulnerable in the many places the sea is deeper than that.
Several were lost with crews of 100 on board without trace. Yet the Admiralty glossed over the major shortcomings (they had invested over £6m—at the time the cost of an entire dreadnought squadron) and persisted with tinkerings with the design. The final straw was not until January 1918 when a night exercise in the Forth cost two sunk and four damaged with the loss of 100+ crewmen and the nearest Germans asleep in bed on Heligoland.
Wind forward a century to the concept that the UK needs real carriers. The original RN carrier fleet was scrap by the 1980’s and the STOL Harrier-equipped ‘through-deck cruisers’ the only means of projecting UK air power until they were binned in a strategic review two years ago. But the carriers are now to be equipped with the STOL F-35, which doesn’t need a 65,000-ton monster. Nor can F-35s mix it easily with land-based fighters like F-22 Raptors.
The original strategic review called for aircraft carriers for three main reasons (I quote):
- Ability to operate offensive aircraft abroad when foreign basing may be denied.
- All required space and infrastructure; where foreign bases are available they are not always available early in a conflict and infrastructure is often lacking.
- A coercive and deterrent effect when deployed to a trouble spot.
Note how none of this refers to defending the UK. We have pared down most of the defence force of Britain—including ANY long-range maritime capability—to pay for this. So the rationale for carriers is so we can go elsewhere and hit somebody. Given the the USN has 18 comparable carriers and support groups, what likelihood is there we would be going to war without them? And, if we’re talking Afghanistan or the like, carriers cannot get close enough to make any meaningful addition to deploying force there.
So why the hell do we need any, other than for UK high heid yins to whine their way to the top table so they can chest-butt the bad boys?
And, as one US submarine Admiral said about ‘his boys’ in attack submarines: “You know what we call aircraft carriers? Targets.” The US deploy at least one Aegis cruiser, two DDGs and two FFGs, plus support oilers, etc, every time they let one of their carriers out to play away from home waters. That means pretty much the whole RN surface fleet committed to avoiding our carriers decorating the bottom of whatever ocean they’re engaged in gunboat diplomacy at the time.
The RN has form in deploying poorly conceived equipment when it comes to aircraft carriers. Losing Courageous while ‘chasing submarines’ in 1939, losing Glorious while transporting land aircraft in 1940, losing Illustrious to superior land-based bombers in 1941, losing Hermes to the better-equipped IJN in 1942—all can be attributed to the Admiralty appreciating the need for air power at sea but settling for poor tactics and worse equipment trying execute it.
The K-boat strategic concept of fleet submarine was flawed: as Jutland and WWII proved, the whole concept of ‘fleets’ was faulty. The idea that the UK needs what illusory 21st century clout a fleet aircraft carrier with inferior aircraft can offer reeks of similar delusions. And, given that no serving RN Admiral (let alone anyone at the MoD) can claim flag service in a proper fleet carrier, on what basis can our £7bn be anything other than wasted?