WWI German and British Navies



HMS Tiger


Hits Sustained by HMS Tiger at Jutland
1 5.9″
2 11″ Pitched on forecastle, burst in cable-locker flat
3 Two 11″ Projectiles burst in sick bay just before turn at 4:35pm
4 11″
5 12″ Hit ‘A’ barbette
6 11″ Burst in flour store
7 11″ Carried away steaming light
8 11″ Bounced off without doing much damage
9, 10, 11 11″
12 11″ Burst on ‘Q’ turret. Blew in centre sighting hood
13 11″ Did more damage than any other projectile
14, 15 11″ Did not penetrate belt
16 11″ Burst on ‘X’ turret
17, 18, 19, 20 5.9″
21. 12″ Broke back of steam pinnace and No. 4 derrick. Blew away battery door and part of bulkhead

In 1914, the Royal Navy could boast 20 completed dreadnoughts, Germany 13, the United States 10. The combined battleship fleet in service of the Allied Powers numbered some 49 compared to 32 for Austria-Hungary and Germany. Italy had one dreadnought (with three more on the way). The Russian Navy could deploy four dreadnought- type capital ships, all in its Baltic Fleet. Japan, which would soon join the Western allies, had four remarkable battle cruisers/fast battleships, the Kongos. Thus, the Triple Entente powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia) seemed to have a great advantage in modern capital ships. However, Germany had passed France as the second naval power, although the United States, which had no battleships in commission before 1890, was fast moving up. (It is a common mistake to attribute the coming of World War I to a naval armaments race between Germany and Great Britain. In reality, earlier diplomatic crises notwithstanding, German-British relations were fairly good in 1914, and a cordial atmosphere prevailed between the two nations’ fleets. The main German worry was the Russian army, allied with the revanche-minded French.)

When the United States entered the war in 1917 its navy could deploy some 14 excellent dreadnoughts. Yet it actually contributed only five, under the command of Admiral William S. Sims. Due to the British fuel oil shortage, they were all older coal-burners.

Dreadnought battleships were extremely expensive and typically consumed years in construction. With only two exceptions (Japan’s Ise and Hyuga), no dreadnought under construction during World War I was completed in time for that conflict. USS Tennessee, for example, was laid down in May 1917 but was not completed until June 1920. And, of course, the designs for the two Japanese exceptions predated the hostilities by several years.

However, the belligerents’ relative strength was considerably closer if one looks beyond numbers. Royal Navy ships were narrower in the beam than German ships, so as to fit into the British dockyards. (The Germans saw that the dock should be built for the ship, rather than vice-versa.) The greater beam of the German dreadnoughts meant that they could devote more space to watertight integrity. (In fact, no German dreadnought would be lost until World War II.) Further, even more space could be devoted to watertight subdivision because short-service German Navy crews lived in barracks ashore and thus did not require the greater habitability needed in British warships with worldwide commitments. (The British scoffed that the Germans were mere “soldiers at sea.”) Although earlier German capital ships could also devote more tonnage to armor protection, on the eve of war the armored proportions of both nations’ dreadnoughts were almost identical.

Although the British docks could have been enlarged at great expense, their location could hardly be changed. These Royal Navy sites had been established during the Age of Fighting Sail, when France, Spain, and Holland were the main enemies-Germany as such did not yet exist. Only the gigantic fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow in the far North Orkneys could position the Grand Fleet to command the North Sea. (The Grand Fleet contained the Royal Navy’s dreadnoughts, the Channel Fleet its pre-dreadnoughts.) But Scapa Flow was completely undefended in 1914. The French Navy found itself in roughly the same position; after battleship Jean Bart was torpedoed (but not sunk), the French blockade of Austria-Hungary was removed first to Malta and then to the island of Cephalonia.

The German situation was just the opposite; two of their main naval bases were on the North Sea, and the third, Kiel, was accessible through the Kiel Canal, widened and deepened to take dreadnoughts by 1914. In fact, all the major German naval bases were connected by rivers and canals, and all the German coastal naval bases were heavily fortified.

The British were well behind in metallurgy. The RN had opted for wire-wound guns, a bad proposition from the start because the barrels tended to droop after only a few rounds were fired, leading to a consequent loss of accuracy. The Germans relied on built-up ordnance, with greater endurance, but then again the smaller-caliber German guns tended to jam more frequently. Still, the Royal Navy’s armor-piercing shells, filled with the unstable lyddite as a burster, tended to break up if they landed obliquely, rather than penetrating and bursting inside. (British seamen would cheer as they saw their shells burst against German flanks, not realizing that the explosions were often little more than fireworks displays.)

British cordite propellant tended to be unstable, as seen in the destruction of the pre-dreadnought Bulwark and dreadnought Vanguard by internal explosions during World War I. No German battleship suffered such a fate. (Neither did any U. S. battleship, unless one accepts the theory that an internal explosion, and not sabotage, destroyed Maine in Havana Harbor.)

Perhaps more significant was the Royal Navy’s emphasis on rapid fire: Projectiles and cordite propellant charges were carelessly left lying about as gun crews concentrated on pumping out shells. This habit made for impressive peacetime blanketing of the target, but it turned the lightly protected battle cruisers into death traps in the real world of naval combat.

British dreadnoughts overall were no less resistant to shell fire. For example, the super-dreadnought Warspite took 13 heavy hits and the battle cruiser Tiger 17 at the Battle of Jutland and both suffered only moderate damage. [Editor’s bold] British mines, however, dismissed as the resort of weaker powers, were definitely inferior.

The Royal Navy also had much to learn about damage control, as demonstrated in the loss of the brand-new dreadnought Audacious, which foundered, despite prodigious efforts to save it, after striking a German mine and suffering relatively light damage in October 1914. Many supposedly watertight compartments proved to be anything but.

A significant cause for these significant qualitative differences in naval technology can be seen in the educational systems of the two powers. The Germans trained for the trades, the British for the professions. There were very few British captains of industry carrying doctorates, as was often the case with Germans. The Eton-Oxford graduate who could elegantly parse classical Greek hexameters was valued by the British middle- and upper-class education system far more than the grubby metallurgist and chemist (who were to remain “on tap, not on top”). More tangibly, it might also be that the Germans, with fewer battleships than the British, were simply more concerned about the safety of individual ships. Through World War I, they had lost only one, and that an elderly pre-dreadnought, at Jutland.

Knowledge of the shortcomings of Royal Navy battleships and equipment had not seeped down to the general public. Those who fretted about such matters concentrated on quantity, led by the jingoist press (“We want eight-and we won’t wait!”). Dreadnought had set off a race for capital ships, particularly between Germany and Great Britain, impelled by influential newspaper editors, journalists, and navy leagues in both nations. The race reached a peak in the panic of 1909, when Winston Churchill, at the time an opponent of naval expansion, contended tongue-in-cheek that the government had asked for four dreadnoughts, extreme navalists demanded six, and the government compromised at eight! Although this agitation focused almost exclusively on quantity, not quality.

Successive Royal Navy attachés stationed in Germany pointed out the sobering areas of capital ship inferiority. But apparently only one man worried about the qualitative state of the Royal Navy, and that was the commander in chief-designate of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. It was he who tried to bring these matters to the attention of the First Lord of the Admiralty (the political minister in charge), Winston Churchill. Jellicoe concluded that capital ships could not even be considered the equal of their German contemporaries, something of a stretch, as most historians would now agree. (But it should be noted that Jellicoe was an inveterate worrier, as will be seen in his actions at Jutland.) But at least publicly, Churchill proclaimed “the undoubted superiority of our ships, unit for unit.”

It was just as well that the public did not know of the Grand Fleet’s material failings; such knowledge might have undermined the main area in which the navy enjoyed unchallenged supremacy- the spirit of its officers and men. They knew that they were the inheritors of an unbroken 150-year tradition of naval warfare in which they had never been defeated in a major fleet action and had lost precious few individual warships, and those mostly to their cousins, the Yanks. Still, the Royal Navy’s top commanders were for the most part a mediocre lot. Jellicoe himself has never been rated as one of history’s great naval commanders.

German naval commanders may have been more professional, but they seemed clueless in their relations with the lower deck. This attitude caused a mutinous, sullen, even revolutionary rot later in the war, which spread throughout the High Seas Fleet and would, in the end, lead to the downfall of the imperial monarchy. German naval officers tried to ape the manner of army contemporaries, with their greater prestige. Naval officers dueled, drank, ran up debts, and held unofficial courts of honor. The latter may have been somewhat misplaced: After the attempted mutiny on the dreadnought Prinzregent Luitpold, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet, slyly and personally sabotaged the appeal of two naval death sentences to the Kaiser, although such appeals were a legal right. It could thus be argued that the personnel rot in the High Seas Fleet started at the very top.