The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part I

It is an axiom among historians that a knowledge of history can serve as a guide to the present. This is not to say that the present ought simply to imitate the past, for every human situation is indeed unique, but rather that individuals and groups should act to meet new situations partly on the basis of past experience. Armed forces have a particularly bad reputation for not taking this axiom seriously. Let us examine in some detail one case history, the Royal Navy after the First War, with a view to understanding how much that Service profited from 1914–18 and why it did not learn as much as it might have from its war experience.

The gruelling test of battle in the war naturally had brought to the fore a host of defects in the Royal Navy–in materiel, tactical doctrine, and system of command. What would the postwar Navy do about these shortcomings–that was the question. During the hostilities, the ‘Young Turks’, led by Captain H. W. Richmond, partly to assuage their bitter criticisms of the inefficiency of the Navy, looked forward to a postwar British version of ‘J’accuse’, to be followed by an era of reform which would capitalize on the lessons of the war. They were confident that the war would provide the will for, and create an atmosphere favourable to, reform. ‘The English won’t learn in peace,’ declared one of Richmond’s disciples, ‘but they can’t fail to learn from war. It may be 5 years, or 10 … but sooner or later the truth must come to light and a renaissance will result, followed by a sound system of education.’

Early postwar prospects were good. Before leaving the Admiralty at the beginning of 1919, the First Lord, Sir Eric Geddes, recommended to the Board of Admiralty the appointment of ‘a strong, critical, and as far as possible independently-minded Committee’ to examine ‘the naval position on the outbreak of war and the steps taken during the war to remedy defects and meet new requirements’. Captain Stephen Roskill says that this suggestion, ‘with its implied criticism of the Admiralty’s conduct of the war’, was not implemented. Early in 1919 the Admiralty took steps ‘to appoint Committees of Sea Officers to summarise the more urgent lessons of the War and to make recommendations as to future policy, whilst the experience of the War is fresh in their minds….’ Here again there was no immediate follow-up. The only two committees formed were the ‘Mitchell Committee’, appointed on 21 March 1919 to make a thorough investigation of what had gone wrong at the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli in 1915, and a Post-War Questions Committee in August 1919 (Rear-Admiral R. F. Phillimore, chairman) with narrow terms of reference. It was to ‘consider in the light of the experience of the war the military uses and values of the different types of war vessel’ and ‘consider and advise the Board of Admiralty on the part likely to be taken by aircraft, both in attack and defence’. A Government directive struck the examination of the naval air situation from the terms of reference. As regards the first charge, no doubt because of Admiralty sensitivity to what might emerge from a searching study, the Committee made a superficial examination of the pertinent experience of the war and put its imprimatur on the continuing predominance of the battleship (March 1920).

More promising was the work of the Naval Staff College, which was started at Greenwich in June 1919 on Sir Rosslyn Wemyss’s initiative to train officers for Naval Staff duties. Its very establishment proved that one all-important lesson of the war had not gone unheeded. As Lord Beatty, who succeeded Wemyss at the end of 1919, put it: ‘Such naval disasters as occurred during the war were the direct result of the lack of sufficient and efficient staff. … We paid very dearly for the experience which led to its formation and nothing should interfere with its development.’ The main object of the staff course training (the course was approximately nine months) was (and remains), in Admiral J. H. Godfrey’s words, ‘to broaden the mind to study war and to make officers think’. By 1939 the list of officers who had completed the course, or had served on the staff of the College, filled two pages of the closely printed Navy List. During the 1920s the Navy, generally, regarded staff officers with a good deal of suspicion, particularly those with really independent thoughts and ideas. This attitude had changed by the beginning of its second decade, and ‘it seemed to be universally accepted that the staff course should form part and parcel of a promising naval officer’s career, and that the qualifications for selection to the course were the same as those for promotion. Of the fifty-one executive officers who did the course during 1929 and 1930, eighteen have become Flag Officers.’ As part of its work, the Staff College did its best to study and absorb the lessons of 1914–18, and the evidence is that it made as good a job of it as could be expected. The battles of the First War were studied, Jutland above all, with personal talks by the leading admirals of that time–J. R. Jellicoe, W. E. Goodenough, and others–adding a realistic element. In 1936 Admiral Sir Reginald (‘Blinker’) Hall, the great wartime Director of Naval Intelligence, delivered a ‘magnificent’ talk on intelligence and on ways of communicating with those at sea. He also discussed trade protection, drawing on the experience of 1914–18.

The Tactical School was founded at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1924 (it was the proposal of Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, Jellicoe’s Flag-Captain at Jutland) to promote a more scientific study of naval tactics. It expounded the Battle Instructions (title changed in the summer of 1939 to Fighting Instructions), with a well-organized demonstration of Jutland on the big tactical board as the high spot. This was laid on to bring out the lessons to be learned. For the rest the officers did convoy exercises and staged imaginary fleet actions. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis has ‘always thought that the Tactical School did a good job and I believe this was the general opinion in the Service. The fact that the Navy never put a foot wrong “tactically” in World War II is generally attributed largely to the work of the Tactical School.’ I would not dispute this expert judgement, except to note that there was perhaps too much emphasis on fleet action as being the ultimate test of war. One must add that a lot of tactical experiment and investigation went on at sea, where it should, and was carefully analysed. All the same, as will be indicated below, not all the tactical lessons of the First War were learned.

The accepted doctrine of the Navy’s strategical ideas was supposed to have been enshrined in the Naval War Manual, first issued in September 1921 and revised in October 1925. There was little in it beyond a few catchwords pertaining to the ‘principles of war’ and generalities on ‘naval policy’, the ‘functions of the Navy’, ‘war plans’, and so on. A much fuller statement, completed in October 1938 by Commander John Creswell at the R.N. College, Greenwich, at the direction of the Admiralty, had not been issued when the war came.

In short, there was in the interwar years a fairly close study of the lessons–some of the lessons, at any rate–of the war, and certain principles were evolved and reforms instituted. It may rightly be claimed that British naval successes in the Second War can be attributed in part to these studies and exercises. Apart from the establishment of the Staff College, there were various ways in which the lessons of the First War had obviously been learned and were well applied. Thus, enemy reporting was much improved and the Navy had good success in solving the problem of a massed torpedo attack by destroyers on a battle fleet, which had hobbled Grand Fleet tactics. The Grand Fleet doctrine of not committing a fleet to night action was rejected, and improvements were introduced in night fighting (as through the introduction of star shell and improved searchlight control), with the reward of Matapan. Ernie Chatfield and W. W. Fisher in the Mediterranean in the early thirties placed great emphasis on night-action training. In the last prewar months the new DNI, Rear-Admiral J. H. Godfrey, was able to apply an important lesson of the First War–that Operations and Intelligence must work together, avoiding any semblance of secrecy. The neglect of this common-sense principle had had disastrous results at Jutland. There was a big improvement on the First War as regards initiative and leadership. Those in command of operations, even small ones involving perhaps only a few units, showed a high degree of initiative, in no small way regaining the confidence in, and capacity for, independent judgement of those captains of the old sailing days who usually had to rely on themselves. Staff work generally, ashore and afloat, was improved. ‘There was’, writes Admiral Sir Manley Power, ‘a tremendous change in the behaviour of Senior Officers in the period between the wars, particularly in their attitudes towards their staffs. Early ones resented having staffs thrust upon them at all. Chatfield, as C-in-C [Mediterranean, 1930–2], used his staff to the full, but officers venturing opinions uninvited were severely choked off. [A. B.] Cunningham, whom I served [1939–43], professed to despise Staff training, but thrived on controversy and encouraged it. One of his earliest remarks to me after I joined him was: “I hate Staff Officers who agree with me.” This made me a No man for the duration!’ ‘A.B.C.’ was typical of the new breed of senior officer–men like John D. Cunningham, B. H. (‘Bertie’) Ramsay, and James Somerville–who encouraged controversy.

There was after the First War tremendous room for improvement in inter-Service understanding and co-operation. ‘To appreciate the atmosphere in which the Dardanelles assault was hatched, one must accept the fact that Admiral [Sir A. K.] Wilson, Lord Fisher, and Lord Kitchener were incapable of co-operation and would have been deeply shocked at the idea of revealing a naval plan to a soldier, or a military project to a sailor.’ The lesson was learned. After the war the three staff colleges held a joint exercise every year (the one in 1935 was ‘The Recapture of Singapore’!), which welded together Royal Air Force, Army, and Navy officers from the staff and personal points of view. The creation of the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1923, a body where the three Service Chiefs met as a team to work out a common strategy and advise the Government on defence, was another encouraging development in the same direction, as was the companion Joint Planning Committee. I should mention, too, the establishment in 1927 of the Imperial Defence College to ‘train a body of officers [from all three Services] and civilian officials in the broadest aspects of Imperial Strategy’. As a result, despite the fact that differences of opinion continued and good relations were bedevilled by the Navy–RAF feud over control of Naval Air, inter-Service co-operation in the last war in the strategic field, though far from perfect, particularly at the very top, was highly effectual.

But all this gives a false impression of what actually was achieved in the twenty years between wars in the way of profiting from the lessons of 1914–18. Much was done at Staff and War colleges and at the Tactical School, but it was not based on a really critical study of the past. Moreover, investigation focused on materiel problems. Ship design, questions of gunfire (success was achieved in the control and concentration of gunfire), the development of smoke screens, and the like absorbed the energies of Admiralty committees. Apart, however, from the Mitchell Committee on the Dardanelles in 1919, there was little attempt by these committees to study the larger problems and lessons of the war. The results of this neglect were most serious in the field of trade defence.


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