By Jeff Williams
Best Defense office of reviewing books about obscure weapons
"History does not repeat itself but it rhymes" - Mark Twain
As the centennial of the First World War is nearly upon us, it is rather ironic to note that Mark Twain's insight bears some relevance in today's world. A hundred years ago there was also an intense naval competition between two great powers. Today we find American naval supremacy being challenged by the up and coming Asian land power China. This is not so different from the early 20th century when Great Britain's rule of the waves was challenged by the powerful European land power Germany.
Like contemporary America and China, Great Britain and Germany were very substantial trading partners, but also global strategic rivals. As that rivalry increased in tempo it drew British naval power away from her far-flung empire closer to home in the North Atlantic and North Sea. These two bodies of water in effect acted as a gate to the maritime ambitions of Germany.
This situation is not so different from China's strategic concern today about its own access to those sea areas that it considers of vital strategic interest. In light of this, both the United States and China find themselves in a competition to develop strategies and tactics for new technologies that in many ways resembles the century old contest between Great Britain and Germany.
To help us understand that naval rivalry between the British and Germans, comes the familiar figure of Norm Friedman, a highly regarded naval writer well known among those with an interest in naval warfare past and present. His previous works such as U.S. Aircraft Carriers and Naval Firepower are the gold standards for a more in-depth understanding of both naval aviation and surface gunnery in both World Wars. Friedman's new book Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines and ASW Weapons of All Nations is an excellent addition to his library of naval writings.
The real impact of Friedman's book is the tracing of the development of weapon systems, how they were understood, and their influence upon tactics and strategy. For instance, the long-range torpedo had a significant impact upon the thinking of both British and German naval theoreticians. The 1914 British adage was that "gunnery fills a ship with air but the torpedo fills it with water." The Royal Navy's tactical response to this observation was to increase the range and rate of fire of their gunnery, in order to disable an enemy vessel, followed by the coup-de-grace of a destroyer-led torpedo attack.
However, there were unintended consequences to increases in the rates of fire of a battleship's main armament. Certain key safety precautions were informally set aside, such as keeping turret ammunition flash doors open rather than having them safely shut during action. Many naval historians like to point out that the deck armor of the ill-fated battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible was too thin. In actuality their tragic loss had much more to do with the "tactical factor" of dangerous ammunition handling techniques adopted to speed the rate of fire rather than the "design factor" of deck armor thickness. The original concept of the battlecruiser as a class was high speed for scouting ahead of the battlefleet. These ships likely could never have reached their designed speed if deck armor was made thick enough to protect against excellent German AP shells, thus defeating the rationale of their operational intent.
German ammunition handling procedures at Jutland were far safer, albeit slower, in that flash doors remained closed and ammunition was stored in brass cases rather than vulnerable silk bags. This did reduce their rate of fire but also considerably lessened the risk of a catastrophic explosion. Consequently, the hard school of battle forced the British to rethink ammunition handling and enforce safer procedures. Battle also instructed them on developing improved fire-control to overcome German maneuvering, designed to disrupt fire-control solutions.
Additionally, the British had studied and liked the idea of a massed torpedo attack at the culmination point of a battle and without further evidence made the assumption that the Germans did also. While the Germans might have liked to make massed torpedo attacks, they didn't. German doctrine considered torpedoes far too expensive and valuable to be squandered in such a fashion. The famous turn away of the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland, screened by only a few torpedoes, was far from being the massed attack that Admiral Jellicoe, the British Grand Fleet commander, anticipated.
One of the most surprising revelations Friedman makes concerns the fact that while it was long-standing Royal Navy practice to maintain a tactical fleet plot during an engagement, it was not German practice. According to Friedman, what happened at Jutland "was that the German commander Admiral von Scheer, discovered to his surprise that he had no idea whatever of what was happening -- he maintained no plot and the situation was far too complicated for anything less. In that sense he was profoundly defeated and the only important conclusion he drew was that he never wanted to fight the British fleet again." Von Sheer's self-induced confusion was largely responsible for allowing Jellicoe to place his fleet across the Germans not once, but three times. Additionally, it seems the primitiveness of German tactical doctrine was largely responsible for the failure of von Scheer's initial cruiser scouting plan. The botched job of scouting led directly to von Scheer's later surprise and confusion.
Freidman's book also discusses the use of mines as a highly potent weapon. Tactically laid minefields constrained the maneuvering of both fleets in the North Sea and had probably more direct implications on immediate naval operations than any other single factor, other than the submarine. The mine was the ultimate passive-aggressive weapon whose cost-benefit was highly efficient and remains so to this day. He also reviews the primitive beginnings of ASW and thoroughly discusses both its limitations and future promise to be fully revealed in the Second World War.
Norm Friedman's book is not a page-turner, but if you have an interest in naval history and the interplay of technology, tactics, and strategy, you might enjoy this new addition to his library of naval literature. In my view, just the coverage of the British and German experience at Jutland is worth the price of the book.
-Many thanks to ‘Tyrtaios' who contributed many important suggestions to the writing of this review.
Jeff Williams spent his working life at IBM and Merrill Lynch, but always sustained a deep curiosity about military and naval history. His paramount interest has always been the Royal Navy of the Georgian era but his fascination with the First World War has led him to extend that interest to the naval campaigns of that conflict.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.