By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Them

This blog has been consistently critical of the UK Ministry of Defence and all who sail in her, right up to the Cabinet Minister for Defence, currently Philip Hammond. Apologists for the Union as diverse as Murdo Fraser, Alan Cruickshank and Stephen Curran have taken issue with this stance. Many others, from Brian Wilson to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen to Malcolm Rifkind have never deigned to comment but I’m sure would be equally stout in the defence of defence (if you know what I mean).

So, it behooves this blog to make more than accusations and back up criticism with plausible substance. Much of the very Unionist arguments revolve around the power that the UK deploys in the world and the glorious victories of the 20th century made possible by that strength and resolute joint efforts of the countries of the United Kingdom to achieve them. While there is much to praise in such achievements, the details do not allow close examination if you have no wish to expose a cataclysmic series of cock-ups that should have sold us down the suwanee but didn’t, mostly because we got lucky.

There are so many to choose from, with WW2 particularly blessed by incompetence from tank design to Singapore to convoy escorts to mechanised tactics to anti-tank guns to naval air, and so on. But because it is a century ago, let us examine the War Office/Admiralty approach to submarines on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War.

Throughout the 19th century, the Royal Navy dominated the seas with what is now called a ‘blue water navy’, meaning units could deploy almost anywhere around the globe, using a chain of strategically placed bases and coaling stations. Prompted by an innovative admiral called John (Jackie) Fisher, HMS Dreadnought, a 20,000-ton leviathan with 10 12-inch guns and capable of 24 mph was launched in 1906. By being faster than any enemy with three times the firepower, it instantly made every other battleship obsolete. Including all those in the Royal Navy.

That launched an early form of Cold War among naval powers to out-build each other with such ships. That race was in full cry when in 1911, Winston Churchill replaced Fisher as First Lord of the Admiralty. At the time, that job was the most pivotal in the Empire as the RN and its ability to project power was what held it all together. He presided over a naval budget for that year of over £44m, which was to pay for five new battleships, four cruisers (to scout for them) and twenty destroyers (to chase off torpedo boats who might sink them with that devilish new-fangled contraption).

So preoccupied was Churchill and the Admiralty professionals with outbuilding Germany especially that each year’s naval estimates included similar expansions up to August 1914. At that point, the Grand Fleet fielded 24 battleships (and 5 more building) to Germany’s 16 and everyone from Churchill down congratulated one other they had won the race. What they didn‘t know was that British armour design was inferior, that their poor isolation of gun turret from magazine below would cost them three battlecruisers at Jutland two years later and that German optics and gunnery training was far superior, especially at range and in poor visibility.

But, what His Majesty’s Admiralty also didn’t know (but swiftly realised after the outbreak of war) was what else the Imperial German Navy had been up to, besides building better equipped and protected battlewagons. They had been furiously developing submarines, the diesel engines to drive them and the torpedoes to fire from them. During Churchill’s tenure, the number of British submarines had actually gone down and only a dozen or so were ‘ocean-going’, able to operate other than close to the British coast.

While Fisher had been an advocate of the submarine, Churchill and almost all other admirals saw them as weak, slow and good only for defence, using phrases like “the weapon of a weaker nation” or “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”—this, despite the fact that the German budget for submarines was known and known to be growing. Against the British offensive dozen, Germany deployed 46. And when it was forecast in June 1914 that these would sink unarmed British merchantmen without warning, Churchill went on record as saying he did not believe that “this would be done by a civilised power“.

Barely a month after war was declared, on September 22nd three British cruisers HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were patrolling off the Dutch coast, enforcing a blockade on German trade. In broad daylight, the submerged U-9 sank all three with a loss of 1,459 men from their crews of over 2,200. The week before, another U-boat had penetrated the Firth of Forth past all its defences to within a couple of miles from Rosyth naval base and added insult to injury by sinking the cruiser guardship HMS Pathfinder near Bass Rock on the way out. The Admiralty had barely got over those shocks when the same U-9, replenished back in Kiel, came back out on October 15th. She promptly sank HMS Hawke, which had been sent to replace the lost cruisers, for the loss of another 500 lives.

In the ensuing panic, all Allied shipping in the Channel was stopped and troop transport to France suspended. The entire Grand Fleet held at Scapa Flow to block German breakout to pillage our maritime trade retreated to Loch Ewe and then to Lough Swilly in Ireland, from where they would have been hard put to stop any German move.

It was the beginning of a harrowing phase in British history when its ability to continue the war was called into question as more and more shipping was lost to submarine warfare for which no answer had been prepared. The subsequent carnage among shipping around Britain that followed had been foreseen by the retired Fisher but ignored by anyone with influence. It took two years—until July 1916—for the Admiralty to finally introduce a proper planned convoy system, after which losses started dropping.

But during that time, hundreds of millions (billions in today’s terms) spent on British battleships was neutralised by shrewd planning by the Germans taking advantage of  plodding thinking from those in charge of Britain’s defence. When the Admiralty finally did decide that submarines were “fair” and a weapon of the future, they got it so wrong it resulted in the Battle of May Island, when over 100 RN sailors died and the nearest German was asleep in Wilhelmshaven. But that’s a different MoD horror story.

Meanwhile, one hundred years on, with Nimrods, Harriers and half the army scrapped, while any naval air arm is in limbo and the RAF pared to find money to sustain nukes, the evidence that a great deal has been learned about defence is hard to find. We’re better together? With these chumps? Don’t make me laugh: how much worse could the Scots possibly do for themselves in the light of chronic, repeated ineptitude from Whitehall’s War Office/Admiralty/MoD?

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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