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Dismantling the Fleet that Jackie Built Pt 3

August 27, 2009

During his tenure as First Sea Lord, British Admiral Jackie Fisher brought the Royal Navy back home. Gone was the need for long-range cruisers and gunboats, which forged the Empire, save in the most crucial hot-spots. In its place the Battlefleet was all important. Fisher insisted his New Navy consist of only the most powerful warships centered around a core few types including cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, all revolving around the dreadnought battleship as the primary arbiter of command of the seas.

This Battlefleet mentality began unraveling soon after the start of the Great War. Several embarrassing episodes involving German cruisers overseas forced a change in policy and cruisers were detached from the Grand Fleet to deal with this menace to the shipping lanes. On one occasion two battlecruisers were sent to intercept Von Spee’s powerful squadron culminating in the 1st Battle of the Falklands. This single engagement was likely the the best use ever made of this lackluster class of warship.

Dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet-1917.

Dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet-1917.

While the Grand Fleet kept the German High Seas Fleet securely in its “jail”, little could be done initially to counter the U-boats ravaging British Merchant shipping close to home. Comparable to the stalemate in the European trenches, the Royal Navy felt helpless to counter the enemy subs, since it had bet all on the decisive engagement between battleships. The myth still reigns that the Fleet based at Scapa Flow actually accomplished something during the years of immobility (save for a single inconclusive sortie at Jutland in 1916). It is true that the Germans eventually lost the war due to the strain of England’s blockade, but the British price was far greater, who eventually lost an Empire.

Did Fisher have another alternative than the costly and ultimately futile Dreadnought Race it engaged in with Germany? Historically Britain was not a leader in warship design, but a follower. Slow to introduce new technology into service, she would at least respond quickly and decisively when faced with an overseas threat, often going one better. As example we offer the French battleship La Gloire, the first sea-going Ironclad, in comparison to the magnificent HMS Warrior which came later.

Where the Royal Navy previously stood out was in crew training and gunnery expertise, but at Jutland she showed a woeful lack of experience in this crucial art of warfare. During the 18th and 19th Century Wars with France, she had neither the best-built ships nor superiority in numbers, but was still the terror of the seas. The larger, faster French and Spanish ships of the line would often go out of their way to avoid a clash with even an inferior British Fleet, as we see with Nelson at Trafalgar.

Had Fisher emphasized gunnery over numbers and technical efficiency in his race to outbuild the Germans, deficiencies in the qualities of shells might have come to light in exercises instead of during the crucial battles of the Great Wat at Sea. There surely would have been adequate funds for testing new fire direction systems, which greatly enhanced the science of gunnery. In a reverse of history, at Jultand and other engagements, the German gunners and control equipment were simply much better.

Less money spent on battleships would have meant the smaller ships could have been kept on station around the far-flung Empire, giving the colonies less of a sense of abandonment. There would have been adequate destroyers to guard the Grand Fleet and still contend with the U-boats, while new cruisers overseas might have avoided the disaster of Admiral Cradock’s squadron against the German Admiral Von Spee.

Sadly, the battleship mentality cultivated by Fisher persists to this day in the form of the aircraft carrier. More now than ever before the smaller ships are tied to supporting naval airpower over all traditional and still crucial functions of seapower. Even with the most minor problem of piracy, it is felt that helicopters can maintain control if it gets out of hand. But as threats to shipping multiply worldwide, the number of deployed vessels are increasingly overwhelmed by the extent of coverage needed, and the admirals are surprisingly astonished at the inadequacies of their handful of Big Ships, even with the force-multiplier of naval airpower. Some experts now contended 1000 ships are required for adequate defense against the new buccaneers, and because such a force is unaffordable (given the gold-plated price of modern ships), most wonder why bother?

CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier

CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier

Unable then to comprehend a fleet beyond their 21st Century battleships, they refuse to transform their building plans to reality; giant supercarriers which grow in size and shrink in numbers; nuclear powered “space cruisers” which will shoot ballistic missiles from the skies; super-destroyers the size of a pre-dreadnought battleship, and deep diving nuclear subs  as large as war-era cruisers.

Clearly the two strategies are no longer compatible: a small concentrated Space Age warfleet versus a larger, more useful force of light vessels, scattered around the globe where it is needed. Though there is no denying Jackie Fisher built a powerful and impressive modern navy, his plans now seem out of touch and a sure path to national bankruptcy without anything useful getting accomplished.

Finally, we leave you with this thought, on the desperate need to cast off the ideas of yesteryear and reform our navies, making them more capable and compatible with 21st Century threats. Here is UltimaRatioReg at the US Naval Institute blog:

Extrapolating the Afghanistan ISAF model to the world’s oceans, the “thousand-ship navy” would consist of some five hundred US Navy warships, and nearly 200 units of the Royal Navy.  Of course, neither service comes close to those numbers.  Neither have plans to do so.  Both navies, in fact, are shrinking.  The US Navy, committed worldwide, is struggling to maintain its level of 280-odd ships, while the Royal Navy has fewer than 100 vessels in commission.  Though many will point to those numbers and claim that the Thousand Ship Navy concept is not entirely one of warships, we have had several recent lessons regarding the value and necessity of “presence”.  This, in its true form, requires warship hulls.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. elgatoso permalink
    August 28, 2009 4:00 pm

    Distiller:I think that Sec Gates is going where you point.The problem is the conservative nature of the Armed Services.And for that, he is making small changes to give the opportunity at the services to absorb the new Hi-Lo idea.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 28, 2009 6:08 am

    Aaron, the USN seems to have the idea of a “balanced Fleet” backwards. They have a top-heavy battleforce of about 200 carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines, plus amphibs but only a handful of small escort types. No wonder we have a steady shrinking fleet and an admitted presence deficit!

    As I keep asking, where’s the Hi-Lo Navy?

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 28, 2009 6:02 am

    Thats my point Aaron. At the very least their sizable and very powerful (on paper at least) Fleet could not be ignored. Also, the Italian Army formed the backbone of Rommel’s Afrika Corps, performing quite well under his extraordinary leadership. And lets not forget the daring raid on Alexandria by Italian Frogmen when they knocked out a couple British Battleships for a year!

  4. Distiller permalink
    August 27, 2009 11:31 pm

    @ Aaron

    Of course everything points towards a two-level force (not only in the naval realm).

    There would be only two realistic way towards that: For one making the Marines independent from the Navy and give them those low level jobs, or a massive expansion of SOCOM, a SOCOM Navy. Otherwise there is no way the Navy establishment would not create a caste system of “real” officers, and those who didn’t have what it takes or didn’t know the right people.

  5. AaronW permalink
    August 27, 2009 6:55 pm

    Isn’t the luxury of being a superpower that of fielding two levels? On the one hand, one can maintain and drill a force of “Space Age” ships and flotillas of smaller, deployable vessels. I believe that the difference is one of mission-type: the large force is one of war while the smaller one is of peace. Defining these mission types, which hopefully won’t be so distinct as to have completely separate personnel requirements, would be a key in forward strategic planning towards any relevant Navy.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    August 27, 2009 4:54 pm

    Lovely article. But I think you miss the point re La Gloire and HMS Warrior. It was precisely because we world leaders that we could afford for others to take technical risks before seizing on them, and then going one better. The former is a true ironclad, La Gloire more a missing link. It was only when we lost the lead that we were forced to take the “risks” and force the pace in a bid to keep ahead e.g. HMS Dreadnought.

    HMS Warrior is one of my favourite ships. When in Portsmouth I much prefer to spend time onboard her than HMS Victory.

    Like I said super article.

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