One Hundred Years of Desuetude

With apologies to Señor Gabriel Garcia Marques for abusing his title, the next thousand words seek to examine the assertions coming from Philip Hammond, his MoD minions and his boss David Cameron that Scotland would be far safer and able to defend itself in this wild and woolly 21st century by remaining a partner in the UK.

We shall leave for another time whether the current UK pose as a global power wielding a nuclear-tipped seat on the UN Security Council is either sensible or affordable and focus on the last century’s track record of defence ability in general and military posture in particular that led to the present overstretch and inability to project anything anywhere without US or NATO support (which comes to the same thing). UK contributions in Afghanistan were marginal; those in Libya were weak; Syria non-existent and Crimea not even credible.

One hundred years ago when Victoria died, Britain did indeed rule the waves—and underscored that fact by launching the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1904. Problem was that it made not only competing fleets obsolete but the Royal Navy’s as well and locked it and the bulk of its funds into building the 28 comparable battleships with which it entered WW1. The result was a neglect of other forms of naval war, such as submarines and countermeasures to them. This led to the loss off Holland of all 3 (obsolete) ships of the 7th Cruiser Squadron—and 1,457 officers and men—to a single U-boat on September 22nd 1914 and brutal merchant losses for years before the Admiralty was forced to adopt a convoy system.

Tragic as that was, the flaws in British capital ship design came home to haunt them. Not only were German ships better designed but they were tougher with superior armament and—decisively—both ranging optics and skill in using them. After indecisive skirmishes in the North Sea, the ‘showdown’ at Jutland became no such thing. Three British battlecruisers simply blew up—not just because they had been designed for speed at the expense of adequate armour but because flash protection to stop fire in a turret reaching the magazine below had not been fitted. The Germans suffered no such weaknesses.

The carnage of four years in the trenches were not a result of MoD shortcomings but the sideshow bloodbath that was Gallipoli was. This amphibious assault with no amphibious assault equipment provided was an Opera Bouffe for which ANZAC, rather than British, troops suffered casualty rates as high as 25%. Nothing of substance was achieved. Luckily, an even dafter plan to land British troops on the Pomeranian coast and march on Berlin came to nothing.

That the “War to End All Wars” should result in huge defence cuts post-1919 is understandable but seldom were those funds provided put to good use. HMS Rodney & Nelson were built to a daft design that were structurally unsound and often inoperative. The folding of the Naval Air Service into the RAF meant that Britain entered WW2 with risible naval air strength built around the obsolete Swordfish biplane and a maritime reconnaissance arm on short-ranged Ansons. And, while Hobart was writing prophetically of the key future role of the tank only to be ignored, Guderian was busy forming the first ten panzer divisions.

At the outbreak of WW2 at least the RAF were being provided with modern Spitfires and Hurricanes but its ‘striking’ power were underarmed Battles and Blenheims in the tactical role and lumbering Hampdens and Whitleys in the strategic, all of which were swept from the skies in the debacle that led to Dunkirk. Magnificent as that operation was, it stands as a monument to British muddling through to atone for Whitehall inertia and incompetence.Even Fighter Command’s magnificent achievements in the Battle of Britain came close to jeopardy by a dearth of pilots because it was being treated as an exclusive club for Oxbridge buddies.

The whole sorry story of weak/slow/clumsy British tanks commanded by impulsive ex-cavalry officers throughout the war is a book in itself and responsible for half of Rommel’s reputation. Blindness to the lessons of Jutland led to HMS Hood blowing up in action (3 of her 1,325 crew survived) and to the convoy lessons of WW1 led to countless mercantile losses and two aircraft carriers sent out to chase submarines (?!). It took most of the war to catch up building the escorts needed to secure the Atlantic trade routes.

And none of this is to mention the charades being played about British might in the Far East. That Hong Kong might fall was obvious but racist deprecation of the Japanese led to Singapore being a shibboleth of Empire might. After Pearl Harbor, it fell within weeks to an inferior force and the loss of two battleships, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and an entire army—the largest single defeat the British have ever suffered. It wasn’t just because they had omitted building and defences on the inland side of Singapore—but that didn’t help.

In all of this, there is no insult intended to the brave men who served noble causes, nor to the campaigns conducted with a verve and aplomb that compensated for shortcomings in leadership and authority: the Abyssinian campaign of 1941; commando raids on Fortress Europe; innovation in special forces like the LRDG or the Chindits are only some deserving mention. But look at design sensations and you find it wasn’t the MoD who launched the amazing plywood Mosquito (it was deHavilland) or the fast MTB for light forces and air-sea rescue (it was Vosper). Perhaps the General staff’s most successful and useful project was the 25-pounder artillery piece which provided the ‘punch’ in ground warfare in all theatres throughout WW2 and beyond.

Thankfully, the last half-century has seen less warfare and so less need to ‘muddle through’ to make up for shortcomings in the MoD and General Staff planning and leadership. There was the massive (if casualty-light) humiliation of the Suez debacle. There were the millions wasted on the Blue Streak/Blue Steel missiles. There was the aluminium superstructure of the Type 42 destroyers that burned in combat and lost HMS Sheffield in the Falklands; the lack of decent tactical AA in the Falklands; the absence of enough heavy-lift coppers that left 2 Para taking Goose Green with cold steel and most of 5 Brigade yomping across East Falkland under a ton of kit each.

The last 20 years has seen the MoD directing UK forces in the Middle East with a variety of shortcomings, whether it was Tornados’ vulnerability to any old iron thrown up in its path as it follows the nap-of-the-earth low-flying training standard or vulnerability of standard-issue Landies to roadside bombs. For over a decade now, UK forces have suffered almost all of their casualties from irregulars in unconventional warfare in which Challenger tanks, Warrior APCs, artillery and air bases are targets rather than assets. The advantage of being part of a large country that can better afford such things escapes most objective observers. The Irish Defence Force in Mali or the Norwegian Army in Palestine both do bang-up jobs of peacekeeping with nothing heavier than jeeps and machine guns.

And what good our Trident nuclear subs are doing slithering around the Atlantic two decades after a Soviet threat evaporated and as expensive, irrelevant junk in the present Crimea crisis passes all logical understanding. But then, where the MoD and Whitehall have been concerned they have ‘form’: ’twas ever thus.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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