BOOK REVIEW – Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918

Shawn T. Grimes, Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2012. 263 pp.

Review by Howard J. Fuller
University of Wolverhampton

First off, this is a very handsomely-produced book from The Boydell Press (or Boydell & Brewer, based in Suffolk, England). Victorian-born maritime painter William Lionel Wyllie’s “Manoeuvres” graces the cover; a lesser known watercolour next to frequent re-prints of the “First Battle Cruiser Squadron of Grand Fleet 1915”-oil painting, for example, or his epic 42-foot panorama of the “Battle of Trafalgar,” a centre-piece of the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth. This is no accident, because while naval history enthusiasts typically prefer battleships and equally over-the-top sea battles to drool over, “Manoeuvres” is very much about cruisers grappling with the complexities of modern blockade. With its churning brown waters and prominent seagulls in the foreground contrasted starkly with the dark grey ships coming in from the horizon, the art, like Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918, likewise suggests the projection of sea power against land. Indeed, Grimes sets out to make a hard-argued case against the “widely accepted” view that the Royal Navy went into the First World War of 1914-1918 with a largely “defensive” strategy and mind-set that crippled its effectiveness against the Central Powers, and especially in directly threatening Germany from the North Sea and Baltic fronts. He is lucky to employ page-footnotes as well, rather than chapter endnotes or worse, index notes stuck at the end of a book, obliging the reader to clumsily zigzag between analytical narrative and dense research. Here, the magic of the diligent “Rule Britannia”-revisionist is hidden in plain sight for all to see.

The second observation to make is that Grimes does succeed in convincing his reader believe that the Royal Navy did not take its mythic status as “Mistress of the Seas” for granted, or blithely drift into the “Great War” hoping the spirit of Nelson would somehow carry the day once more. In many respects, the British went into that conflict as professionally prepared as any other player—perhaps more so given the deadly stakes involved for a maritime empire whose strategic resources might be thrown into disarray by the Jeune École strategy of a formidable enemy, and an island nation wholly dependent upon imports for its survival going into the twentieth century. Technology remained a wild-card, as it had since the mid-nineteenth century when steam power negated the wind, and monster guns and metal-armour shielding changed the character of England’s “wooden walls.”  Mines, torpedoes and fast-attack flotillas further complicated the strategic picture. Despite the recent, much-trumped theory of a “Cherbourg Strategy”—whereby (only) the British navy could directly attack heavily-fortified naval arsenals or port-cities by distant or even close-range bombardment—the fact remains that such glowing possibilities were never certain or one-sided enough for British diplomacy to risk war against France, or further operations against Russia during the Crimean War (Cronstadt’s improved combined defences remained just strong enough to counter Britain’s “Great Armament” going into 1856). The greatest maritime war of the nineteenth-century, the American Civil War, saw aggressive British statesmen like Lord Palmerston rattle their sabres (or naval cutlasses) during the Trent crisis of 1861—then change their tune to worry over a Yankee “war of revenge.”  The Union Navy continued to mobilise beyond all expectation, employing monitor-ironclads to check any sea-going European varieties afloat, re-fortifying Northern ports with the heaviest service guns the world had ever seen, and laying down a separate fleet of super “Alabama”-style commerce-raiders to threaten British commerce all over the Empire. Projecting its own power against the Confederacy, even with a specialised Brown Water coastal assault navy backed by plenty of troops, however, proved very problematic for the United States. New Orleans fell to a naval coup de main; Charleston did not. Mines sank ironclads, and along with armoured “rams,” deterred most naval commanders from attacking enemy harbours. Even Farragut admitted his luck by “damning the torpedoes” at Mobile Bay in 1864. If Michael Partridge could argue in 1989 that the “close” or direct coastal blockade had died between 1885 and 1905, it was because the “Splendid Isolation” of Britain had already recognised, three decades before, its fundamental inability to defeat—much less “deter”—continental powers by naval offensives alone. As Grimes notes, the Royal Navy “had a strategic doctrine, albeit ill-defined and vague, in place at the [First World War’s] outset.”  That is, it suffered from a schizophrenia between what it was capable of doing par excellence—like conducting a vast though distant blockade of Imperial Germany from the strategic anchor point of the British Isles themselves (the English Channel acting as one ‘fluke’ and the Orkney Islands/Scapa Flow main-base as the other)—and what remained exceedingly difficult to do: “peripheral assaults on the Continent” (p. 192).

As this study charts in detail, the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) of the Admiralty, finally established in 1887, devoted much of its time to exploring the possibilities of both close-blockade and major coastal assault by naval units. Interestingly, this included many “Copenhagen” schemes from Admiral “Jackie” Fisher. This was when he was still a captain and conducting experiments from HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy’s traditional HQ for ordnance trials but also a think-tank for big dreamers like Admiral Sir Ducie Chads, who from 1845-1853 (i.e., the outbreak of the Crimean War) was certain the new rifled, shell-firing guns of the day would simply out-range heavily-fortified naval bases like Cherbourg. The ensuing war demonstrated otherwise. Sevastopol beat back both British and French fleets (on 17 October, 1854); Bomarsund had to be taken by troop landings, ultimately; and Sweaborg was an impressive fireworks display of 13-inch mortars which nonetheless failed to actually damage any Russian forts or dismount guns, and which saw nearly every mortar break down from faulty (rushed) construction. No one at the time had a solution for Russian mines (or “torpedoes”) any more than the Americans did ten years or so later—and even by 1914 British operational planning “was dictated by the dominance of the mine and submarine in the North Sea,” states Grimes. As a result, most of these half-baked ideas were summarily and prudently rejected by the NID—as risks not worth their potential pay-offs—the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign being the one great, awful exception.

Despite the admirable current of optimism running through Strategy and War Planning, the author is rather out on a limb by suggesting the 1918 Zeebrugge and Ostend raids, for example, were “the culmination of the trend begun in the NID three decades earlier” (p. 193). These were more desperate commando operations than a decisive “Copenhagen” or “Cherbourg,” and they were marked by war-time haste. The actions themselves were every bit as dramatic as Alistair MacLean’s fictitious novel from 1957, The Guns of Navarone, except the British did not succeed (any more than they did in the Dodecanese Campaign of the autumn of 1943 and the Battle of Leros upon which MacLean based his re-imagining). Ghastly losses were hardly mitigated in the judgment of history by a generous sprinkling of Victoria Crosses and die-hard British propaganda so thoroughly dissatisfied with the long, drawn-out blockade that any offensive action at sea was depicted as a triumph even if it failed. But what clearly marked the lack of proper coastal assault capabilities was the absence of an actual, purpose-built flotilla throughout the so-called “Pax Britannica.”  As Ian Buxton observed in 1978 with his study of Big Gun Monitors: Design, Construction and Operations 1914-1945 (reprinted  in paperback by Seaforth Publishing in 2012), the Royal Navy invested just 1.6% of its annual naval estimates of 1914-15 towards the construction of shallow-draft, heavily-armed and armoured monitors; the “proportion of seagoing personnel serving in the monitors was also under 2 per cent” (p. 241). Significantly, as with Britain’s precipitous “Great Armament” during the Crimean War, they were nearly all built by the private sector—as Brown Water men-of-war were never considered a peace-time priority for Admiralty-controlled dockyards. Jim Crossley has repeated the verdict recently with Monitors of the Royal Navy: How the Fleet Brought the Great Guns to Bear (Pen & Sword, 2013):

Where was the proud, aggressive Royal Navy which people had so patriotically supported in the peacetime years?

It was this sense of inadequacy which led to the madcap schemes for invading northern Germany which the monitors were designed to lead. When these ventures were abandoned they were replaced by the ill-planned Dardanelles campaign in which monitors played no decisive part. The sustained bombardments of the Belgian coast by the massive guns of the later monitors and the preparations for amphibious landings may have done something to assuage the guilty feeling of senior naval officers, frustrated by the supine attitude of the Grand Fleet, but they didn’t worry the enemy much. The Germans had to garrison the Belgian coast using men and guns which would have been useful elsewhere, but in the big scheme of things this was no more than a minor embarrassment. Even the Zeebrugge Raid only resulted in a handful of casualties on the German side, and represented a poor return for all the planning and effort put into the various schemes for coastal raids. If the monitors were supposed to be the aggressive arm of British sea power, that arm was a miniscule one (p. 147).

Making something small into something great is therefore the real trick here. Grimes writes: “Foibles aside, the pre-war offensive projects resurrected during the war still retained a strategic flexibility deigned to best utilize the Navy’s traditional strengths decisively against Germany had the decision been made to supplement the blockade’s gradual pressure with more expedient methods.”  That’s an author laying down smoke, and it only works—just like the Ostend raids themselves—if the wind is blowing just the right way (which of course is up to the climate of the individual reader.)

This book is nicely written and organised, and it is hoped Grimes will continue with first first-rate scholarship. One problem with Boydell & Brewer’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918, on the other hand, is the price. At a listed $115 (even $100 via Amazon) it will be well beyond the reach of most naval buffs (and academics will dig deep or get their institutions’ libraries to order copies for them). A paperback re-print ought to help, and given the calibre of this work one cannot doubt it will be sold-out soon if not already.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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