Prior to the First World War, the naval construction race between Germany and Britain saw two nations leap-frogging each other as their naval architects sought to create bigger and better battleships. Faced with British industrial might, the Germans, who on the whole produced better ships, found they could not win the numbers game. More than two decades on, Plan Z could not hope to fully match the British, who had a head start due to their large, if mostly elderly, extant battle fleet. Barred by the Anglo-German Naval Agreement from creating a fleet more than thirty-five per cent of the Royal Navy’s size, the Germans decided to go for quality rather than quantity. They achieved their aim without protest, because the British refused to believe the biggest of the new warships – Bismarck and Tirpitz – were intended to contest the open seas upon which the empire’s trade flowed. In that way the Germans pulled off a masterly deception, even if they received a lot of help from their future enemy in doing so.
Using the Washington Treaty and the later London naval conference as its guide to fair play, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement limited Britain’s next generation of battleships to 35,000 tons and it was expected the Germans would do the same. The head of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Erich Raeder told his naval architects to create a battleship that would in reality displace 45,000 tons (standard), but in July 1936 the official figure handed over to the British was 35,000 tons, with a beam of 118ft and a draft of 26ft. The principal weapon would allegedly be the 14.8-inch gun. In reality, the Germans armed Bismarck and Tirpitz with eight 15-inch guns as primary armament, with twelve 5.9-inch guns as secondary, plus sixteen 4.1-inch, sixteen 37mm and thirty-six 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The UK’s Director of Naval Construction assessed that such a broad beam and shallow draught indicated the main theatre of operations for Germany’s ‘Battleship F’ (the future Bismarck) would be the Baltic, in other words against the Russians, something with which some senior naval officers agreed. By early 1937 there were those in the Naval Intelligence Division who argued the Germans were probably lying about the new battleship’s dimensions – that she had more displacement, deeper draught, bigger guns and was generally much larger, probably indicating an ability for deep ocean raiding and the endurance to match. Such views were politically inconvenient in an era of appeasing Hitler.
It was easier to invest blind faith in the Germans keeping their side of the bargain. The British have a habit of playing things straight when others might be cheating because it’s the done thing, the honourable course. Scrutinizing the reality of Bismarck’s design might have led to the conclusion that Britain should also cheat, but that would not do. Better not to look too closely.
It was also easier on the public finances. Hitler, who left the technical details of warship construction to his admirals, saw the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as worthwhile only because, in promising not to rival the Royal Navy’s supremacy, Germany could build up a navy that would at least be big enough to counter French maritime power and also, of course, to support territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe.
In this way the British agreed to allow Germany five capital ships, a pair of aircraft carriers, twenty-one cruisers and sixty-four destroyers, plus a sizeable number of U-boats. By being so generous they of course permitted the Germans to build the very warships that would prove to be the Royal Navy’s biggest worry in May 1941. Bismarck was laid down in July 1936, her sister ship, Tirpitz, that October. Bismarck was, in reality, almost 814ft long and 118ft wide, with a deep load draught of more than 34ft. Even her standard displacement of nearly 41,700 tons – not including fuel oil, feed water for boilers and ammunition – was, of course, a flagrant breach of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Bismarck’s fully loaded displacement was 50,900 tons, though the British did not know that until after the war.
In late December 1936, in a report intended to be seen by the Foreign Office – also copied to DNI as well as C-in-C of the Home Fleet – Captain Troubridge expressed a suspicion there was some kind of bid to outwit the British. He wrote: ‘The Anglo-German naval agreement was one of the masterstrokes of policy, which have characterized Germany’s dealings with her ex-enemies since the war. When the time is ripe, as history shows, it will unquestionably go the same way as other agreements; but the time is not yet.’ However, the final sentence of this passage was not conveyed back to the Foreign Office, possibly because the Ambassador, Sir Eric Phipps, thought Troubridge should restrict his comments to naval matters, rather than speculating on political intent. Nevertheless, the DNI saw it, as did C.-in-C. Home Fleet. The Royal Navy was of course subject to the direction of the democratically elected government of the day, and neither the government, nor the British people was minded to pick a fight with Germany over its naval intentions. After the Second World War, Troubridge was asked by the wartime DNI himself, Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, why he did not flag up more prominently his concerns over where the Kriegsmarine’s expansion plans might be headed. Troubridge responded that while he had initially remained open-minded, though still wary, he hoped the Germans genuinely intended sticking to the restrictions. That they did not became obvious after Bismarck’s launch. Troubridge told Godfrey that a British diplomat based in Hamburg assessed Bismarck was ‘drawing a good deal more than she should’. The truth is that while the Royal Navy would have been quite open to the idea that the Germans were breaking the rules, the political leadership did not want to rock the boat. When Britain guaranteed Poland’s security on 31 March 1939, Hitler responded within weeks by applying ‘untragbar’ to the naval agreement and tearing it up, leaving the British with new battleships that abided by limitation treaties but were, on an individual basis, inferior to Bismarck.
Faced with two battleships, a pair of battlecruisers under construction, and three pocket battleships – each displacing around 16,000 tons (deep load) and armed with six 11-inch guns – already commissioned into service, between April 1933 and January 1936, the Royal Navy decided that despite Germany having nearly defeated Britain through unrestricted submarine warfare in the First World War, the main threat still lay in surface raiders. Funds were funnelled towards modernizing elderly, First World War-era capital ships and building new cruisers and battleships. Since the First World War the British had built only two new battleships, Rodney and Nelson (both laid down in 1922). Stunted in appearance, with a trio of massive gun turrets, each of which mounted three 16-inch guns, all placed forward, they were nevertheless effective, despite brutish lines and slow speed. The principal British naval aim was domination of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, to secure those zones from the depredations of surface raiders and keep open supply routes and connections to far-flung parts of the empire. As the menace of Fascism grew through the 1930s, even the pacifist British public and parsimonious governments of the day found they could not ignore the need for new battleships. Initially, because the King George V Class battleships were designed to abide by naval limitation treaties, they were planned with a displacement of 35,000 tons. But the lapsing of those agreements ultimately gave naval architects an opportunity to be somewhat more ambitious, and so their displacement rose by another 5,000 tons. Unfortunately, because the design had originally played by the rules, the 14-inch gun was retained. Upgrading the main armament would have meant going back to the drawing board and, with the drumbeat to war sounding loudly, that simply was not possible. At 745ft long, with a beam of 103ft, the King George V Class ships were 68ft shorter and 15ft narrower than Bismarck and Tirpitz. The deep load displacement of 42,076 tons was less than the German battleships, although it was believed until after the Second World War that the Kriegsmarine’s new battlewagons were about the same displacement as the Royal Navy’s. With belt armour of 15 inches (maximum), the British ships were also, overall, less heavily protected than Bismarck and Tirpitz. With a top speed of 28 knots, they were one knot slower. Prominent among those urging creation of a new breed of ocean-going monsters in the early 1930s was Winston Churchill, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty a quarter of a century earlier, presided over the RN during the final years of its pre-First World War naval build-up. As war clouds gathered, he experienced many sleepless nights wondering if the British navy would manage to keep its lead over the Kaiser’s fleet. Now, despite all the blood and treasure spent in the early part of the century, Britain was once more involved in a naval arms race. The interwar treaties had merely postponed the inevitable settling of scores incubated by the unsatisfactory settlement at Versailles. Throughout his wilderness years (1929–1939), when no British government would listen to his dire warnings of a gathering storm, Churchill kept in touch with the Admiralty, which tolerated his forthright advice and lobbying on ship construction matters. The former First Lord of the Admiralty gave the Navy a voice in Parliament, even if it was rarely heeded, at a time when many in government doubted the whole point of the RN. Its bitter enemies included the upstart Royal Air Force, which had gained control of the naval air arm and suffocated maritime aviation ambitions in case they drew scarce funds away. When the government of the day reluctantly ordered new battleships, Churchill immediately offered strident advice to the Admiralty. Some of it was not entirely welcome, in particular his criticism of the decision to opt for 14-inch guns, which were smaller in calibre to those mounted in the new Japanese and American ships. Even the Queen Elizabeth Class battleships Churchill had been midwife to more than two decades earlier packed the punch of a 15-inch gun. He stated in a letter of August 1936 to Sir Samuel Hoare, First Lord of the Admiralty: ‘It is terrible deliberately to build British battleships costing £7,000,000 apiece that are not the strongest in the world.’
Originally the King George V Class were to have a dozen 14-inch guns, which Churchill thought gave a weighty punch that offset the smaller calibre. However, the ships were redesigned to take only ten 14-inch guns. Churchill thought this a disaster, not only because it caused a delay in getting them into service but also because the punch was, in his view, not strong enough.
It was maintained by the Admiralty that, even so, the more numerous 14-inch guns – ten of them rather than eight 15-inch or nine 16-inch – had a faster rate of fire. The superior velocity and range of their shells would give them a longer reach and greater penetrative power. Mr Churchill was not persuaded. The former First Lord later grumbled that Britain gambled the fortunes of the Navy, and control of the sea, on ‘a series of vessels, each taking five years to build, which might well have carried heavier gun power.’ All ships of the King George V Class were laid down in 1937, but completion was slowed due to Britain’s withered shipbuilding capacity, which was suddenly burdened with not only constructing battleships, but also aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and submarines. The first of class, King George V, named after the recently deceased monarch, was laid down on News Year’s Day 1937 and launched in late February 1939, less than seven months before war broke out.