Peering through a glass darkly into the future.

China is busily accumulating sea power to make President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream come true. The dream is about making China great again after it suffered a long “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors punctuated by dynastic collapse and civil war. Greatness in the abstract need not alarm fellow Asian powers. It is the type of greatness Xi has in mind that vexes outsiders. Parts of China’s dream are innocuous or even mutually beneficial for Eurasia; these are welcome. Other parts, however, raise the possibility that a great China will be a domineering China.

It is the job of U.S. maritime strategy to temper the sinister aspects of China’s bid for greatness without quashing its benign aspects. To channel China’s dream toward temperance, U.S. leaders must understand and adapt. They must understand China’s maritime strategy, that is, while adapting to the new circumstances to which it has given rise. What should scholars and practitioners of American sea power take away from studying maritime China? First of all, the Chinese are industrious folk and tough competitors. Xi’s vision of the Chinese Dream amounts to a statement of political purpose along with an effort to summon political resolve. To all appearances it resonates with the audiences to which Xi means to appeal, namely the CCP and rank-and-file citizens.

A polity intent on fulfilling a common dream invests generously in policies, strategies, and implements of power designed to make it a reality. And it sustains that investment for a long time, if not forever. As Carl von Clausewitz counsels, a competitor that yearns ardently for its “political object” undertakes an effort of commensurate “magnitude,” as measured in lives, treasure, and resources. It presses the effort for an open-ended “duration.” The magnitude of an endeavor corresponds to the rate at which a competitor expends resources; duration means how long it keeps up the expenditure. Doing the arithmetic—multiplying rate by time—reveals that China is pursuing an enterprise of startling proportions.

And it could make good on its oceangoing project. Americans, accordingly, must resist the urge to deprecate China’s ingenuity, competitive fire, and steadfastness; far safer to regard challengers as peer competitors or spoilers until events prove otherwise. Past seafaring hegemons have yielded to the temptation to discount challengers. The allure of complacency is doubly strong if the hegemon has reigned supreme for decades while challengers boast meager records for nautical enterprise. In this sense a false reading of history breeds smugness. Russian admirals sneered at the IJN a century ago. The wages of condescension? Wreckage from two fleets strewn across Asian seafloors and the destruction of Russian sea power in the Far East for generations to come.

Nor are Russians the only offenders. U.S. Navy leaders love to tout the foresight of interwar strategists toiling at the Naval War College and other precincts. Yet American naval officers were slow to grasp that the IJN was a deadly foe in the making. They waved aside its capacity to develop the weaponry that Japanese aviators deployed to stunning effect in 1941–42. And not until Soviet task forces started voyaging throughout the seven seas, including historic American preserves, did the U.S. Navy start taking the Soviet Navy seriously during the Cold War. Hubris toward challengers such as China’s PLA Navy is a vice U.S. Navy leaders must rebuke without mercy. Hubris begets blind spots—and blind spots misshape strategy, operations, and tactics.

Affording this prospective antagonist respect and grappling with how its leadership makes and executes strategy will help the United States avoid intellectual failings of this sort. Westerners, including Americans, have made much of China’s anti-access strategy, for example. Some reduce anti-access to a family of weapons that China has deployed to make things tough on U.S. or allied forces. Anti-access is a material thing for analysts of such leanings. The engineering side of the problem is nettlesome, to be sure, but there is more to it than that. Beijing wants to make the rules regulating access to waters and skies it cares about. It would permit mercantile shipping to cruise the sea-lanes unmolested while proscribing military activities—surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and the like—that the leadership deems objectionable.

Resourceful regulators use whatever tools are at hand. Military force is only one such tool. Properly understood, then, anti-access is a grand strategy. Its practitioners harness diplomacy. Chinese emissaries impress upon potential opponents that the costs of forcible access to the western Pacific or China seas will prove unbearable and the return on the investment meager. If they do their job convincingly, they will skew American or allied cost-benefit calculations against bucking Beijing’s will. Economics is another tool at China’s disposal. Offering or withholding economic cooperation plays a part in its cost-imposing strategy. Economics could let Beijing play the alliance-breaker, moreover, peeling away U.S. allies that see an enormous stake in trading with China.

Moreover, the Chinese have shrewdly interpreted international law in ways that aim to restrict U.S. military use of the seas and airspace enshrouding China. They have also enshrined their legal positions across maritime Asia in domestic legislation in an attempt to confer sovereign authority on their excessive jurisdictional claims. And of course there is the obvious martial component. The PLA has devised hardware and tactics to persuade adversaries that they cannot win a trial of arms—or at any rate cannot win at a cost acceptable to them. China thus counts on foes to be rational and to abjure costly entanglements that promise scant gain.

Chinese anti-access efforts in the diplomatic, economic, legal, normative, and military realms thus constitute a strategic danger of the first order to the United States and its allies. After all, access to the western Pacific has been an essential pillar of America’s regional strategy for well over a century. Ever since Secretary of State John Hay issued his “Open Door” circular note in 1899, beseeching European powers to respect one another’s equal privileges to the Chinese market, Washington has designated comprehensive and unfettered access to Asia a vital regional objective. It was Tokyo’s progressive menace to U.S. access in Asia in the 1930s that drew the two sides into confrontation and eventually war. After Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War the United States drew up a blueprint for a system of mutual access to underwrite Asian peace, security, and prosperity. It then strove to put that blueprint into practice for decades afterward.

And sea power continued to act as the final arbiter of mutual access. The U.S. Navy’s postwar dominance facilitated the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce, promoting transpacific access to markets while offering a chance at prosperity for those who participated in the network of maritime trade. The naval service’s forward presence in Asia and its ability to respond rapidly to crises also deterred aggression while reassuring allies, and thereby preserved a favorable balance of power. For the United States, access begat wealth, wealth begat power, power begat stability, and stability begat access—a positive-sum cycle.

This is the grand-strategic “logic” of sea power. And it is China’s mounting resistance to the U.S.-led system of trade and commerce, which has nourished the regional order for more than seven decades, that makes the rise of Chinese sea power so worrisome. Policy makers, then, must resist the temptation to focus narrowly on the material or operational dimensions of Chinese anti-access. These are important beyond a doubt. But statesmen must recognize that China’s ascent and its accompanying dream pose an all-encompassing challenge to the United States and the long peace over which it has presided in Asia.

Second, geography is important to China, but its dreams are not bounded by geography. This volume has demonstrated that bursting the “first island chain” is integral to Chinese maritime strategy on economic, diplomatic, and military grounds. As Mahan teaches, maritime strategy is about prying open commercial, political, and military access to trading regions. But access starts at home for a power like China, encumbered as it is by offshore terrain. Occupying Taiwan, for instance, would break the island chain while guaranteeing the PLA Navy access to the western Pacific. It would also drive a salient into the offshore theater, granting Beijing new influence over the southern approaches to Japan and Korea. U.S. alliances might well suffer for it.

Would China content itself with such a geopolitical coup? Perhaps, but color us skeptical. It is very doubtful that China would terminate its seaward quest after a successful opening gambit. Rupturing the island-chain barrier constitutes Beijing’s immediate goal, not its ultimate goal. Mahan’s logic of maritime strategy directs Beijing to court access to suppliers of raw materials and consumers of Chinese products—and most regions critical to Chinese economic health and vitality lie beyond the first island chain. Access to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in particular constitutes a fulcrum for China’s foreign policy and strategy. It demands a regular if not standing PLAN presence in these waterways. Regaining Taiwan would administer a palliative for the “Malacca dilemma” that vexes China’s leadership, but it would not cure it.

In short, no one should expect China to stand down once ensconced on Taiwan. Nor will even an ascendant China abandon its martial playbook. As strategic documents and commentary indicate, China has fashioned a way of maritime operations and tactics that owes something to Mahan’s operational “grammar” of marine command but derives primarily from Mao Zedong’s grammar of “active defense,” as interpreted and reinterpreted by generations of CCP leaders and PLA commanders. This elastic mode of strategy envisions luring foes deep into Chinese defenses while exacting a heavy toll from them as they come. Only after enfeebling stronger enemy forces will PLA defenders hazard decisive combat. If anti-access measures work as designed, China might not even need to risk the PLAN surface fleet in action. Better yet, the defense might deter American intervention altogether.

Third, while martial greatness constitutes part of the Chinese Dream, it is not the whole of it. As we have noted time and again in this volume, Chinese strategists conceive of maritime strategy in holistic terms. The pursuit of access drives them. Strategy manifests itself concretely as Beijing nurtures commerce, builds ships, and negotiates access to foreign harbors. In practical terms, then, any implement that can mold events in waters China cares about represents an implement of sea power. That could be a PLA Navy ship, a PLA Air Force jet, a PLA Rocket Force antiship missile, or a China Coast Guard cutter. It could even be a fishing trawler crewed by militia. For China, maritime strategy is not solely a navy-against-navy affair. U.S. diplomats and military folk must prepare themselves for Beijing’s hyper-Mahanian approach to sea power.

Fourth, ideas from the strategic canon can help Americans fathom the workings of China’s maritime strategy. Mahan’s works are helpful both because they exert direct influence in China and because they help scholars and practitioners analyze and explain the actions of any sea power—whether or not it pays homage to Mahan. But Mahanian operational grammar furnishes China with only partial guidance at best. Chinese strategists have merged ideas from Mao, Corbett, and other eminent thinkers into a synthetic grammar of sea combat. American mariners must read these classics as well, not only for their intrinsic worth but also because together they afford a glimpse at the red team’s playbook.

Fifth, if it is critical not to denigrate China’s capacity to compete, it is just as critical not to overrate China as a high-seas competitor. Its maritime services and naval-industrial complex have performed impressively to date, but they are neither infallible nor superhuman nor unstoppable. Nor are they exempt from human frailty or material shortcomings. Nor are China’s national resources inexhaustible. It is far from predestined, consequently, that Chinese sea power will continue along its upward trajectory into the distant future. Demographic travails, economic woes, and diplomatic overreach could burden China’s seaward ambitions and impose a ceiling on them over the long term.

Parlous times may await the region as China nears that ceiling. Autocratic societies such as China presumably know more than any external observer about their domestic circumstances. If China’s campaign for sea power starts butting up against its limits—and if Chinese maritime strategists believe the U.S. military has begun to compete in earnest at last—the leadership may conclude it must act now or never. In fact, such a mindset may have already taken hold. A sense of urgency may help explain the haste impelling China’s efforts to consolidate territorial gains in the South China Sea. Beijing is running the risk of uniting a hostile Southeast Asian coalition because the risks of leisurely strategy appear far worse.

Turning more narrowly to naval matters, the costs of operating and maintaining China’s ever-growing fleet will mount. For now China benefits on the cheap from the surge in newly commissioned vessels whose keels it laid under the modernization programs of the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, the PLAN has been putting to sea ships of all types at breakneck speed over the past decade. Like new cars, new ships demand little maintenance in their youth. As they age, however, the cost of keeping them seaworthy and fit to fight will escalate. Shipboard components, parts, machinery, and complex weapons systems will need replacement owing to routine wear and tear, not to mention upgrades as technology advances. Older equipment is also prone to malfunction and failure under unforgiving conditions at sea. If the PLAN suffers from slack maintenance practices, structural damage—frequently unnoticed until it is prohibitively expensive to repair—could accrue. Such oversights compound the costs of fleet maintenance.

Consequently, the price of managing an aging fleet’s operational readiness will rise sharply even as Chinese planners look ahead to designing and procuring new generations of warships. The cost curve could prove especially steep because entire classes of ships that joined the fleet in quick succession could reach obsolescence en masse a decade or two hence. Gleaming new hulls splashed on TV or the Internet surround the PLAN with an aura of power and majesty today, but the bill will eventually come due. When it does, programs for everyday operations and upkeep will compete with recapitalization and modernization for scarce—and perhaps diminishing—resources. Maintaining an aging fleet entails opportunity costs for the future fleet.

In the not-so-distant future, then, Beijing will face budgetary choices from which years of abundance have exempted it. How much will it cost China to maintain a larger and older fleet while keeping it sufficiently modern and ready for combat in 2025 or 2030? This question hangs over decision makers in Beijing. Washington should anticipate the day when China begins to labor under such financial burdens and should hunt for ways to impose painful trade-offs on China while magnifying the opportunity costs inherent to any seagoing navy. Making things pricey for China represents another mode of peacetime maritime competition.

Sixth, China is neither unreasonable nor impervious to deterrence. It responds to costs, benefits, and hazards just as any rational competitor does. Steadfast, firm, patient pushback thus could induce Beijing to postpone its ambitions. And if it postpones them long enough, internal change could engender more healthful attitudes toward regional politics. Are we prescribing a containment strategy? Strictly speaking, no. China is not the Soviet Union in 1950, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson inscribed his “American defense perimeter” on the map of Asia.

Nor does twenty-first-century China exhibit the kinds of ideological hostility that plunged U.S.-China relations into a deep freeze—including a comprehensive diplomatic and economic embargo that would be unthinkable today—during the first two decades of the Maoist era. While Beijing has not hesitated to influence foreign governments subtly through economic inducements, public-relations campaigns, and soft power, including proliferating pro-China “Confucius Institutes” to Western universities, it evinces little desire to export a malign ideology or overthrow the West.

And while containment sought to constrict Soviet expansionism through political, economic, and military measures, it is far from obvious that every element of China’s maritime strategy warrants containing. Some of Beijing’s initiatives—its One Belt, One Road enterprise, to name one—appear innocuous if not downright beneficial to Eurasia as a whole. America and its allies must distinguish between public goods of this sort and efforts to abridge freedom of the sea or wrest territory or resources from neighbors. The former should be welcomed, the latter opposed without remorse.

In fact, standing aside could constitute savvy strategy. It is plausible that China is guilty of self-defeating behavior as it plans to invest across Eurasia by land and by sea. Beijing intends to plunge infrastructure investments into some of the least stable and productive regions in the world. The prospective returns on those investments seem dubious at best. One Belt, One Road thus may represent a formula for self-inflicted Chinese financial and diplomatic overextension. In that case the United States and its allies should get out of China’s way and let it fritter away its capital—a finite resource—and even goad Beijing into overreach if possible.


China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during military drills in the Pacific.

Type 075 class of amphibious assault ship.

Every yuan China devotes to projects of questionable worth in South and Central Asia is one less yuan Beijing has to spend on threatening implements of maritime and aerospace power for the western Pacific. The diversionary effects of China’s ambitious and potentially quixotic Eurasian quest could benefit the United States and its allies along the first island chain over the long run. In the meantime Washington and Asian capitals must deter and shape the worst elements of Chinese behavior in maritime Asia.

In practical terms, a U.S. strategy aimed at curbing China’s worst excesses would display an outward semblance of containment—and China’s leadership would doubtless interpret it as such. For decades Beijing has accused the United States of harboring a “Cold War mentality” and of conniving with Asian allies to stunt China’s rise. For instance, arming the Ryukyu Islands with antiship and antiair missiles to constrain Chinese sea and air access to the western Pacific would dredge up bad memories in Beijing.

That being the case, diplomatic dexterity is at a premium in Washington and friendly capitals. Political and military leaders must explain how they intend to marshal power to advance clearly stated political purposes while at the same time reassuring their Chinese counterparts that America has no desire to thwart the beneficent rise to economic and diplomatic eminence that China claims to be pursuing. Plainspoken diplomacy is best. American emissaries must neither bluster nor dissemble.

Yet policy makers must also be ready to accept that their reassurances, no matter how sincere, may never convince Beijing that the United States neither bears ill will toward China nor seeks to thwart its rise. As preceding chapters have demonstrated, unpleasant historical memories predispose Beijing to view the world as a dark place where only the fittest survive. At the same time, China’s elemental sense of its place and purpose in Asia may render unacceptable to the Chinese state and society any Asian future except their own dominance. Unshakable beliefs could convince Chinese leaders that a struggle for mastery over Asia is probable if not inevitable.

Washington must do what it can to avoid a showdown, but it must do so without abdicating its leadership and the military predominance that has underwritten American primacy. It must also prepare itself to wage a new Cold War in Asia should one come. Given that the central theater for such a rivalry would be a nautical theater, framing a coherent maritime strategy now is indispensable to strategic success.

Some may blanch at the prospect of another Cold War. Few savor the idea. But the alternative—if China displaced the United States as the regional hegemon—would prove far worse. Imagine a future Asia where a domineering China dictated events while demanding deference from its neighbors and where the principle that might makes right ruled. China’s track record in word and deed over the past decade suggests that this imagined future is no stretch.

Others may protest, reprising the familiar rejoinder noted in the previous chapter that we are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat China like an enemy, they say, it will surely become one. But China is a strategic actor in its own right, not some passive mass that merely responds to stimuli from outside. China sees its destiny and is determined to fulfill it. It has acted on its ambitions for at least a decade, long before anyone opposed it. If a prophecy impels China, it is the prophecy conveyed by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream—not one imposed from outside.

Policy makers, then, must reject straw-man arguments that reduce China to an inert object and see it for what it is: a living force with an iron will to power. And we must see that America and China have embarked on an inherently interactive, reciprocal competition. Only by discerning the true nature of the relationship can Washington act expediently to mold China’s behavior, impose costs on it where necessary, and coerce or fight it if we must. If we falsely assume the relationship is a one-way affair in which China perpetually defends itself against U.S. actions, then we risk talking ourselves into inaction. Doing nothing is always an option in strategic competition. It would be an unworkable one after years of Chinese strategic advances at sea.

This brings us back to U.S. maritime strategy. Apart from urging naval officialdom to study the facets of Chinese strategy set forth in this volume, we offer four parting recommendations.

First, U.S. strategists and practitioners should be more Chinese in some respects. Or rather, they should emulate China’s approach to reading, filtering, and applying Mahan’s writings and amalgamating them with other fonts of strategic wisdom. In effect China takes a joint, interagency, and public-private outlook on maritime strategy, conscripting any ship, aircraft, or weapon able to shape events at sea. Such an outlook would benefit U.S. strategists as well. Sea power is not—or should not be—solely the province of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

Americans too must think jointly and inventively. U.S. Army forces, for example, could play a pivotal part in U.S. maritime strategy. They have done it before, staging amphibious operations in the South Pacific on an epic scale to beat Imperial Japan. Soldiers could mount an anti-access strategy in miniature if ground units were emplaced along the first island chain. China can exact a heavy price for steaming into its environs. Missile-armed U.S. ground forces can reciprocate by taking their own toll on PLA Navy or Air Force units trying to exit or reenter the China seas. Furthermore, U.S. troops can supply fire support for allied naval and air forces. Like the PLA, they could stage a “fortress-fleet” strategy, sweeping hostile units from nearby waters and skies while hoisting an aegis under which fleet operations can proceed. Turnabout is fair play in strategy.

More important, such implements of anti-access possess intrinsic political value. Ground-based missile units would express America’s commitment to its allies in physical form. When deployed to friendly soil, U.S. forces become concrete tokens of America’s resolve. An attack on them would invite a powerful riposte. That very prospect might deter China from making a move in the first place.

Consider a hair-raising scenario in which the PLA is readying itself to unleash a massive missile campaign against the Ryukyu Islands during an escalating crisis with Japan. Deploying a U.S. rapid-response battalion armed with truck-mounted antiship and air-defense missiles to the southwest islands could alter the Chinese strategic calculus while disrupting the associated military plans. While a powerful Chinese first strike might wipe out both Japanese and American island defenders, PLA commanders and their political masters would be compelled to weigh the operational benefit of doing so against the certainty that the United States would now enter the fray in force on its ally’s behalf. In all likelihood Beijing would think twice before pulling the trigger. If the Chinese did back away from their military option, the allies would have successfully upheld deterrence—winning a strategic victory by any measure.

This hypothetical scenario suggests that policy makers must reacquaint themselves with the idea of “tripwire” forces, token military units planted in an opponent’s way to provide a first line of defense. An attack on these frontline defenders triggers intervention by larger forces. Recall that U.S. Army tripwire forces were stationed in West Berlin—a city that was never defensible in any meaningful way—throughout the Cold War. No one meant them to stop, much less defeat, the Warsaw Pact onslaught if deterrence failed. NATO fully accepted that they would be destroyed should World War III break out. Yet their destruction would guarantee U.S. involvement in any East-West conflagration—automatically shoring up deterrence. U.S. ground forces along and near the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula likewise perform a tripwire function to deter Pyongyang.

It may be time for Washington to strew tripwires in Beijing’s path. China’s surging might has emboldened Beijing to advance its regional designs, confident that its smaller neighbors are too intimidated to resist. China’s strategic importance to Asia and beyond also affords Chinese leaders ample margin of error to absorb blowback from their adventurism. Witness Beijing’s dismissive attitude toward the PCA at The Hague in 2016 after jurors rendered a stinging legal judgment against China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. In that instance Chinese leaders calculated correctly that they could withstand the damage to China’s reputation from defying international law.

Emboldened by such precedents, Beijing may one day conclude that it is time to roll the iron dice. If the Chinese believe their moves will encounter negligible or nonexistent resistance, they will continue to seek incremental gains or may even make a sudden move that presents the region with a fait accompli. The notion of a “short, sharp war” against Japan—an option the PLA reportedly entertained in 2014—represents one variant of a fait accompli strategy.

To discourage such moves policy makers should introduce tripwire forces to the western Pacific theater, some deployed along the front lines and some held in reserve, to prompt Chinese leaders to rethink plans for aggression. As the scenario postulated above suggests, such forces would (1) awaken Chinese decision makers to the risks and costs of actions they may be contemplating and thus induce them to pause and reflect before they pass the point of no return; (2) slow the momentum toward conflict, allowing all sides the time to cool down and seek an exit from the confrontation before it is too late; (3) reassure allies that the United States remains steadfastly committed to their cause in times of crisis or hostilities, and thereby discourage allies from reactions or overreactions that could worsen tensions; (4) impose operational costs, however minor they may be, should deterrence fail; (5) buy time for reinforcements to arrive in the theater should a shooting war break out; and, above all, (6) fundamentally change the political dynamics of the crisis by showing that America has a vital stake in the western Pacific and will act accordingly.

Consequently, it behooves U.S. policy makers to relearn elements of the Cold War playbook. Accepting and taking risks will likely become a routine part of the great-power competition between the United States and China. This is no less true at sea. The politics of anti-access reinforces our argument that executors of U.S. maritime strategy must view the instruments of sea power entrusted to them in holistic, grand-strategic terms. These are elements that senior commanders and civilian policy makers must forge into a weapon of national policy in order to discourage misbehavior.

Strategists must think in interagency terms, especially as they strive to counteract China’s “gray-zone” offensive. As we observed before, Beijing deploys China Coast Guard cutters in tandem with the fishing fleet. These two elements constitute China’s “small stick,” the vanguard of its gray-zone strategy in the East and South China Seas. Washington might follow suit, dispatching U.S. Coast Guard cutters and sailors to help Asian allies guard their EEZs. It could form combined coast guard units with regional partners; it could buy small craft in large numbers, paint them white, relabel them cutters, let fly the Stars and Stripes, and station them in the region. This represents one option among many. Contemplating such offbeat courses of action is a must.

And what about public-private ventures in maritime strategy? Pressing merchantmen into service as strategic implements is a lost art among American mariners. They should cultivate it afresh. Commercial vessels could supplement the efforts of military and law enforcement forces. For instance, freighters converted for military use could serve as logistics assets helping refuel, restock, and rearm U.S. expeditionary forces on station in the western Pacific. Using them in this way would help offset the extreme leanness of the U.S. combat-logistics fleet. Such vessels could act as mother ships for U.S. Coast Guard small craft or for special-operations units. It behooves strategists to think ahead about such options. Imagination is a virtue—orthodoxy, not so much.

Second, we beseech the sea services not to neglect the human dimension of strategy while tending to the material dimension. Colonel John Boyd maintains that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—represent the crucial determinants of human competition and strife. Naval leaders must be prepared to entertain once-unthinkable ideas about strategy and operations rather than dismissing them reflexively. To name one: if China is building toward a five-hundred-ship PLA Navy by 2030, as reputable analysts foretell, how big a U.S. Navy will it take to answer that challenge? Naval leaders must agitate for a fleet larger than any under consideration today if that is the tool they need to accomplish the job.

The leadership, moreover, may need to reconsider habitual deployment patterns. Under the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the sea services reapportioned forces from the traditional fifty-fifty split between Pacific and Atlantic to a sixty-forty split in favor of the Pacific theater. The Trump administration has evidently made the pivot its own while dispensing with the metaphor. But if the U.S. Navy still has its hands full with the PLA Navy, it must reallocate assets more lopsidedly to the Pacific Ocean. It could transfer a bigger share of the fleet as measured by raw numbers of hulls. Or it could shift high-end platforms to the Pacific while reserving light forces for the relatively sedate Atlantic and prevailing on NATO for help policing that expanse against the Russian Navy and other menaces. Naval leaders should reject no idea out of hand—no matter how outlandish it may seem.

Third, sea-service leaders must renovate American naval culture. To start, they must resolve never again to declare an end to naval history. Even smashing triumphs—a World War II or a Cold War—do not repeal such basic naval functions as fighting for maritime command. Nor does victory obviate others’ capacity to contest U.S. marine supremacy. In short, there will always be a next contender, just as there always has been. Service chieftains should encode that axiom in the sea services’ institutional DNA, making it the starting point for debates about strategy, operations, and fleet design. Never again should naval leaders declare never again.

Even should the sea services surmount China’s maritime challenge, the leadership must instill an inquisitive spirit within naval culture. If the next challenger awaits somewhere over the horizon—and it does—mariners and defense manufacturers cannot rest. They must apply themselves constantly to devise new hardware and methods for sea combat. Numbers of fighting ships and aircraft might contract if U.S.-China strategic competition goes America’s way. They probably will. But if high-end armaments already exist in modest numbers when the next challenge takes shape, it will be easier to scale up the force structure than to compel the naval-industrial complex to improvise new systems under the duress of strategic competition or armed strife. Hence the need to innovate before the reason why becomes plain.

And last, the naval leadership should make American naval culture a restless culture like the one Wolfgang Wegener saw impelling the Royal Navy during the epoch when Britannia ruled the waves. Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer observes that creative ages are buoyant ages. They are ages when whimsy prevails—when any crank can formulate a zany idea, put it to the test, discard it if it fails, and move on to the next oddball hypothesis. Some experiments will pay off even though most do not. A playful organizational culture is apt to be a culture favoring enterprise and derring-do—in other words, a culture able to handle all tests and come out stronger for it. Meeting the seaborne challenge manifest in China’s dream, it seems, demands far more than upgrading weapons or sensors. It demands wholesale material and cultural reform. Let’s take inspiration from a longshoreman and a German admiral and make it so.

HMS Taciturn on Station

HMS Taciturn – Royal Navy T Class Submarine. Artist Tom Connell

It was now two weeks since Taciturn had left Portsmouth, with the boat’s men restricted to just one wash a day for hands and face. There was only enough water for one full body wash a week per man. Everybody was beginning to stink and the rancid body odour was far from pleasant in such a confined space, although submariners cultivated a tolerance for it.

The boat’s interior was damp and chilly, with an increasing amount of condensation, caused by warm bodies and hot-running equipment in a cold hull. Some sailors guessed Taciturn was within the Arctic Circle and speculated the submarine sighted had been a Russian. The mysterious noise persisted, forcing the boat to surface and dive three times during the night of 18 September. Lieutenant Commander O’Connor considered abandoning the mission. There was no way they would remain safe in Soviet waters with such a giveaway. Hurley reflected in his diary: ‘it was pointless to go on as, if located, we would either be a grave embarrassment to HM Government or dead!’

That morning an aircraft contact, moving very fast, was picked up 200 miles away. It seemed from the electronic signature that it was a Soviet Badger bomber. The big jet eventually passed right overhead, travelling at 550 mph. Hurley noted: ‘It’s our first real contact with our “Comrades”.

At 17.30 on 19 September the boat surfaced; a potential source for the noise was found in the casing and thrown overboard.

Hurley by now had a boil and felt dreadful, with a heavy cold.

The Coxswain – a senior rating, third-most important man in the boat after the captain and First Lieutenant – told Hurley he would find a means of curing it. Had Taciturn possessed a naval doctor he might well have lanced the boil and drained the pus away. That was an extremely painful process and might have risked reinfection or the infection spreading, particularly with so little water available to wash. The Coxswain used a warm compress to bring pus to the surface and, once this had been done several times, the boil burst of its own accord.

As Taciturn got closer to Soviet waters O’Connor stepped up silent running and decided to make a broadcast, stressing the need for absolute stealth.

‘In many ways we have managed to cut down on noise but from now on we will have to be really quiet all the time. There must be no crashing around with stores, no shouting or hammering or dropping hatch covers.’

He gave them as much detail on the mission as he was allowed: ‘I am unable to say where we are. But we are in the operational area and for 48 hours, starting from yesterday afternoon, we are in a heavily patrolled U-boat area [Soviet submarine patrol zone]. During the subsequent 48 hours we will cross a line into an area heavily patrolled by both submarines and surface vessels. On the other side of that line is an area that will be most interesting and keep us very busy.’

They would be evading Russian attention while getting close enough to record intelligence. The boat stopped snorting at 02.30 with the intention of not doing so again for at least 24 hours to minimise potential exposure. Taciturn would reduce use of machinery to only the essentials, conserving battery power and keeping noise down.

There would be no hot meals during the day – just sandwiches for lunch (no banging around the galley with pots and pans). It also reduced the drain on battery power and ensured people could stay at their stations and not move about to go and get hot food.

Taciturn crept forward at minimum speed, reducing prop noise. Any sailors off watch were ordered into their bunks. Most lights were turned off, as were nearly all heaters. They must conserve the battery at all costs.

Hurley was soon afflicted with a rumbling stomach, scribbling down his thoughts as he lay in his bunk: ‘We bake our own bread, which soon goes. Tea, milk, sugar and water must be watched carefully and often dinner is very small as it’s cold, though normally supper is a good large meal. It’s not that we are starved so much as the long gaps between good meals (which are really good) and the fact that, if one is hungry, there is no bread to fill up on as is normal. But before we are through things will be a lot worse.’

Water consumption was still too high – some 300 gallons a day – but offset by a distiller creating fresh supplies.

The First Lieutenant warned if water usage continued to exceed 250 gallons daily he would shut off the supply completely. No mugs of tea, no washing at all or indeed any activity that required water, for at least 12 hours. The rations state was not good either – there was food for 19 days left, but the boat was expected to be out a further 29.

As if all that wasn’t trying enough, because Taciturn was not going to surface for some time, rubbish could not be ditched overboard. The stench of trash added to that of filthy bodies, made an almost unbearable combination. Hurley noted in his diary: ‘things are becoming tighter and the living harder’.

A sub-surface contact was reported during the Morning Watch, with a strong likelihood of a Russian submarine.

This was no surprise as they were well into the home waters of the Red Banner Northern Fleet.

Taciturn faced the dilemma of staying deep to remain undetected, or coming up to periscope depth and raising her Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) mast to spy on Russian activity. There were several air contacts and more signs of a Soviet submarine nearby.

Taciturn became a tomb – silent, cold, dark, with only the on-duty watch out of their bunks. The captain banned anything but necessary movement’.

During the evening of 22 September, as Taciturn cautiously poked her snort above the waves, telegraphists listened in on the wireless frequencies. They picked up a transmission from a Russian submarine, only 7,000 yards away (not even four miles).

Even when that potential threat melted away, Taciturn ceased snorting every hour so sonar operators could listen for any Russians nearby. It meant the batteries were not fully charged by dawn and it was dangerous to poke the snort mast above the surface during daylight. Tempers frayed, people flashing up at the slightest provocation. Hurley put it down to ‘boredom, lack of regular food, cold and headaches (which most people seem to have) and Rum, which is I think the main cause’. Yet, without the daily ration of rum to take the edge off things, life really would be beyond a joke.

There were indications of a determined effort to flush out Taciturn. Mysterious vibrations and bumps reverberated through the hull, which were possibly the Soviets chasing phantoms with depth charges. A message was passed along from the Control Room asking if anybody had heard an actual explosion in the water. In the early evening of 23 September, Taciturn detected a Soviet submarine very close. People moved as silently as possible to Listening Stations, using slow deliberate motions to avoid bashing into anything and creating noise. They taped the sound signature of the Russian boat. Over the next 63 minutes, the target did plenty to give itself away, using a snort mast and also active sonar pings.

Was it a Whiskey or a Zulu? There were plenty of them around, with Soviet yards constructing 262 between 1950 and 1957 (236 Whiskeys and 26 Zulus). The British boat’s conversion to Super-T had taken more than two years to complete (from the end of 1948 to the spring of 1951) and her displacement was now 1,740 tons submerged. The Whiskey was 1,350 tons and a Zulu weighed in at 2,350 tons dived. Taciturn was more than 293ft long, the Whiskey 249ft and Zulu 295ft. As foes they were well matched.

Taciturn picked up various unidentified noises before again detecting the definitive sound of a submarine. The British boat closed down the distance to make further recordings but the contact faded.

A snowstorm offered an opportunity to snort under cover, reducing surface visibility by obscuring the tip of the mast. It didn’t last long. Likely-looking blizzards were spotted elsewhere through the periscope but nothing came Taciturn’s way, so she was unable to snort again. The air grew fouler and increasing efforts were made to reduce battery consumption.

Lieutenant Commander O’Connor’s orders stated that if Taciturn knew the Russians had spotted her she was to head home immediately.

A really determined search was now being made by the Soviets in the area where Taciturn had first detected a Russian submarine. There was a lot of air activity over that patch of sea. Up to three destroyers were carrying out search patterns. O’Connor concluded he had no choice but to withdraw.

Once inside a NATO exercise area Taciturn would be permitted to break radio silence, letting FOSM and the Admiralty know the patrol had been concluded. It was estimated they would reach the UK in around seven days. O’Connor took Taciturn as deep as he could and piled on knots to leave the Soviet patrol line far behind. The ECM operators picked up aircraft, two of which appeared to be running search patterns. At 20.00 on 27 September, Taciturn surfaced, remaining there for 24 hours, a strong swell making it difficult for her men to sleep as the boat rolled badly. Overnight Lt Cdr O’Connor was able to send his signal.

The boat would make the final part of her passage home on the surface, Taciturn proceeding down through the Minches, lids shut, snort mast bringing in the fresh air while getting rid of fumes and foul odours.

Hot meals were back on the agenda.

In his diary Hurley reflected on the peculiar and arduous existence of submariners: O‘no one really can know what life in a boat is like, not even the General Service [surface navy] ratings until they do a trip. Some of it is unbelievable: the condensation which is like rain at times, the fog, literally, [inside the boat] when we surface quickly, the varying pressure when snorting on one’s ear drums, the damp and cold and absolutely cramped style (35 bodies in a [bunk] space smaller than our kitchen at home), lack of water, fresh air, daylight, sleeping in one’s clothes for weeks. No one is a hero because of this and no one really grumbles, but anyone who says submariners have an easy life and don’t deserve the extra pay ought to see for themselves.’

On 3 October Taciturn came alongside at Faslane, the small, very basic submarine base at the Gareloch, in the mouth of the Clyde. Hurley was unimpressed, declaring it ‘just a small enclosed gravel area with little or no facilities and when we arrived no depot ship either’.

The day Taciturn reached Faslane, Russia launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made vehicle to be successfully sent into outer space. A fortnight later a US Navy submarine came into Faslane, dropping off a package, which was taken to the US Air Force airhead at Prestwick Airport. The American submariners whom Taciturn’s men socialised with claimed their package contained film of Sputnik being sent into the heavens. This was unlikely, as it was launched from Kazakhstan, a long way from any sea a Western submarine might penetrate.

The Russians were, however, conducting nuclear weapons tests on Novaya Zemlya. As with the British submarines, aside from the captain and a select few, nobody in the American boat knew exactly what they had been doing or precisely where. They did know that it was cold, damp and dangerous, and that the Soviets didn’t want them there.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

On 6 August, 176th Brigade, 59th Division, crossed the Orne near Bas de Brieux (near Grimbosq). The 271.ID fought fiercely, but the English were able establish a bridgehead. Kampfgruppe Wünsche counter-attacked on 7 and 8 August with Panther tanks and Tigers from 2nd Company.

SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche, commander of Kampfgruppe Wünsche.

However, the intervention of the 271.Infanterie-Division and Kampfgruppe Wünsche at the bridgehead prevented the 89.Infanterie-Division collapsing of its left flank. Despite their bridgehead, the British would remain temporarily blocked, unable to extend it, and this decisive action remained limited within the context of Operation Totalize.

However, at the time of the fighting, at 21:40 on 7 August, Heeresgruppe B ordered the transfer of the Hitlerjugend Division to reinforce the Panzergruppe, who were fighting next to the 7th Army. The transfer operations were activated and Kampfgruppe Wünsche was to follow at 10:00 on 8 August, after the destruction of the Grimbosq bridgehead. But two hours after the order arrived, at 19:45 on 7 August, SS-Brigadeführer Kraemer told the Panzerarmee that shelling was taking place in the Bretteville-sur-Laize sector and between Boulon and Grimbosq. Meanwhile, violent Allied artillery fire was falling on the German front line, which was the sign of an imminent offensive, and Kraemer requested that the Hitlerjugend Division remained at the disposal of I.SS-Panzer-Korps. It would eventually stay in the sector and thus play an important role in Operation Totalize.

The 12.SS-Panzer-Division was no longer at full strength, having suffered casualties following two months of heavy fighting, and some of its elements had been detached to the west (Kampfgruppe Olboeter). It currently comprised of Kampfgruppe Wünsche (as we have seen), which gathered all available panzers, Panthers at the Grimbosq bridgehead;, thirty-nine Panzer IVs, and around twenty Tigers (2nd and 3rd companies of SS Panzer-Abteilung 101), three grenadier battalions (I./25, I./26, III./26) and artillery (SS-Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 12 and SS-Werfer-Abteilung 12).

On I./SS-Panzer-Korps’ right flank, to the east, the 272.Infanterie-Division would play an intermittent role against the left flank of the Allied offensive. But overall, the balance of power was very much in II Canadian Corps’ favour, which launched 60,000 men and more than 600 tanks into battle, meaning the odds were about three to one for men, and ten to one for tanks.

The 12 Manitoba Dragoons: This was the II Canadian Corps reconnaissance group and was launched into battle on 9 August 1944. 13 August was a black day for this unit, when nine vehicles were destroyed. C Squadron was in contact with elements of the 51st Infantry Highland Division in the Saint-Sylvain area. The unit would then participate in the closing of the Falaise Pocket. A Staghound from A Squadron.

The Canadian Corps

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division provided the other armed force of the offensive, and was part of the 1st Canadian Army and II Canadian Corps, commanded by Major General George Kitching. It was created in Canada in 1942 and transferred to Great Britain from the autumn of 1943. It landed in Normandy in the last week of July 1944, taking over from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on the night of 30-31 July. By 2 August it was already advancing towards Tilly-la-Campagne, although it failed to capture this position, and then came to a halt at La Hogue on 5 August. However, it was now preparing for the new operation and was comprised of an armoured brigade, as well as an infantry brigade.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 29th Reconnaissance Regiment, The South Alberta Regiment.

– The 4th Armoured Brigade aligned the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General’s Foot Guards), the 22nd Armoured Regiment (The Canadian Grenadier Guards), the 28th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Regiment) and a motorised infantry battalion attached to The Lake Superior Regiment.

– The 10th Infantry Brigade aligned The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, The Algonquin Regiment, and The Argyll and Sutherland Regiment (Princess Louise’s).

– It also included artillery from the 15th and 23rd Field Artillery Regiments, 5th Anti-Tank Regiment and the 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In addition, engineering support was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Engineers and communication and information was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Signals.

Two Canadian infantry divisions would also join the offensive.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was under the command of Major General Charles Foulkes. Born on 3 January 1903, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1926, made captain by 1930, lieutenant colonel in 1940, brigadier in September 1942, then finally major general in 1944, when he took command of division on 11 January.

– Its 1st Infantry Brigade (4th Brigade), aligned The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and The Essex Scottish Regiment.

– Its 2nd Infantry Brigade (5th Brigade) aligned The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve and The Calgary Highlanders.

– Its 3rd Infantry Brigade (6th Brigade) aligned Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada and The South Saskatchewan Regiment.

Reconnaissance was provided by the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) and artillery was provided by the 4th, 5th and 6th Field Artillery Regiments, the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the Toronto Scottish Regiment (machine guns and mortars), the 2nd Canadian Divisional Engineers and the 2nd Canadian Divisional Signals.

The division was formed at Aldershot in 1940 and participated in the landing attempt at Dieppe in August 1942. It landed in Normandy in the first week of July 1944, attached to the II Canadian Corps with the 51st ID, and took part in Operation Atlantic from 18 July onwards. It then unsuccessfully attacked the Verrieres ridge on 20 and 21 July, before taking part in Operation Spring from the 25th. The Black Watch had lost 324 men after finally taking Verrieres, but now remained stuck at May-sur-Orne, Saint-André-sur-Orne and Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. However, all this meant that the men knew the area well.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major General R.F.L. Keller, had been fighting in the Battle of Normandy since 6 June 1944. It was formed on 20 May 1940 and was chosen in July 1943 as the first Canadian division to land in Normandy. It fought bravely in the fighting to the west of Caen against the Hitlerjugend, and was the first to enter the city on 9 July. It was attached to the II Canadian Corp as of 11 July, along with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. It proceeded to participate in Operation Atlantic on the 18th and Operation Spring on the 25th, before finally being relieved by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on the night of 30-31 July and being sent to the rear to recuperate. On 7 July it was recalled in order to participate in Operation Totalize and would be in action on the night of 9-10 July.

– Its 7th Brigade comprised of The Royal Winnipeg Rifle Regiment (The Winnipegs), The Regina Rifle Regiment (the Reginas) and the 1st Battalion The Canadian Scottish Regiment.

– Its 8th Brigade comprised of The Queen’s Own Rifle of Canada, Le Régiment de la Chaudière and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

– Its 9th Brigade comprised of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI), The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (Glens or SDG) and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Novas or NNSH).

Reconnaissance was provided by the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars) and artillery by the 12th, 13th and 14th Régiments, the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and the 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

The Canadian Corps also included the 51st (Highland) Division, a British unit, which was commanded by Major General Tom Gordon Rennie. He had been injured on 12 June while in charge of the 3rd Infantry Division, and then took over command of 51st Division on 26 July following the dismissal of Major General C. Bullen Smith. The division comprised of three battalions of the Black Watch, a regiment that had first been created in 1740.

– Its 152nd Brigade comprised of the 2nd and 5th Battalions The Seaforth Highlanders, and the 5th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

– Its 153rd Brigade aligned the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, and the 1st and 5th/7th Battalions The Gordon Highlanders.

– Finally, its 154th Brigade was made up of the 1st and 7th Battalions The Black Watch, and the 7th Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part I

French cruiser Chasseloup Laubat, on the Hudson River, New York.

The maritime strategy of the Third Republic in the years before the First World War falls into two very different phases.

From 1871 to the last decade of the 19th Century strategic thinking has been described by one French historian as a ‘Cold War’ against the traditional enemy Great Britain. Naval thought in this period believed that this must sooner or later end in full open warfare between the two nations. Although Emperor Napoleon III did not personally subscribe to this view his early 1860s navy was one of the finest in French history, leading the world in technology and superior to a neglected Royal Navy. Almost at the end of his reign a largely unexpected factor in naval strategy appeared with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Naval policy moved to the Mediterranean with Toulon as the major base. For ‘Cold War’ theorists a capability of closing the Canal to British merchants and warships was tempting and led to the quest for a Red Sea naval base. Paradoxically, though the trade and strategic common interests of Britain and France was to lead to joint French-British naval operations to ensure free movement through the Canal in 1881, 1915, 1939-40 and 1956.

By the end of the 1870s many French warships had been overtaken by technological developments and become obsolescent while the Royal Navy had returned to development. It was becoming clear that a major warship construction programme to match Great Britain was out of the question. Thinking and policy had therefore to be reviewed, and on both land and sea argued for the building up of colonial and naval force that would make France so close a second-ranking power after Great Britain and the Royal Navy that French interests would be secure, particularly in the Mediterranean. The colonial empire was to provide resources, additional military manpower and bases. These base ports were to constitute points d’appui, of strength from which blue water warships could set forth to harry British commercial shipping in a guerre de course war of attrition. For the defence of the Atlantic and Channel coasts much cheaper vessels, coast defence floating battery ships and light forces would suffice. The head of government, Jules Ferry, in his first 1880-81 and second 1883-85 administrations strongly supported the acquisition of colonies, though this policy was later to be the prime cause for his fall from power. The governments that followed him over the next fifteen years were only relatively less enthusiastic. Alliance with Russia, cemented with exchange naval visits, was seen as an important part of the containment of British expansions. A Russian naval visit to Toulon in 1893 provided a political ‘naval scare’ reaction in London. A group of naval theorists headed by Rear Admiral Aube, author of an important work, La Guerre Maritime et les Ports Français, and mostly composed of young officers, the Jeune École, envisaged an encircling chain of worldwide bases extending from Tunis, Obock (later Djibouti), Madagascar, Mayotte (Comoros), Saigon, a base in Tonkin, Nouméa, Tahiti, Tuamatu (Papua), the Panama Canal and Guadeloupe. By 1890 a rationalisation had proposed three major fortified bases, Martinique, Dakar and Saigon, with seven smaller and only lightly defended sally ports, Guadeloupe, Haiphong, Nouméa, Diego-Suarez, Port Phéton (Tahiti), Libreville and Obock. For the defence of the metropolis Dunkerque, Brest, Lorient and Toulon were to continue their traditional functions, Toulon benefiting from concern over Italian naval building. Anti-British feeling reached a crescendo at the time of the Fashoda crisis in 1898, with increased support for all the overseas bases. But already the growing military and naval threat of Imperial Germany was beginning to concentrate minds on the much more serious threat to the nation.

Warship construction was to reflect the changes in policy. The government that immediately followed the end of the Second Empire still aspired to follow the traditional naval policy of a fleet equal or superior to Britain’s Royal Navy based on a line of capital ships, called ‘First Rate Armoured Ships’ at the time. These capital ships were to be supported by ‘Second Rate Armoured Ships’ for coastal defence, by ‘armoured cruising ships’ and a number of sloops and gunboats. In 1872, before the drive for colonial expansion had come to dominate policy, the Minister for the Marine, Admiral Pothuau, set out a traditional and modernisation programme for the decade. This programme was almost immediately faced with the problems to bedevil French naval construction for the next hundred years, the ever-increasing costs of the technological advances needed for warships, inadequate access to iron and steel and, compared with Great Britain the small number of shipbuilding yards. Construction of major warships often took five or six years, sometimes even longer. Politically the public saw spending on the Army as the priority and the navy greatly reduced, some even arguing for its abolition. Pothuau’s options were limited.

The Marine 1879-80

The Marine’s line of capital battle ships that France could put to sea at the end of the 1870s was in consequence formed of obsolescent ships built in the years before or during the Franco-Prussian War, with the few more modern vessels completed in the following eight years, much but not all of the 1872 programme, forming a total of twenty-one (not including one purchased from the United States which proved to be valueless).

The ships were a very mixed collection. The earliest sixteen were old-fashioned broadside ironclads, the latter five were central battery vessels. The mix of construction patterns and different armaments created difficulties of maintenance and supply of the 1870s ships still in service, the oldest was Solferino completed in 1862, a sister ship had earlier been destroyed in a fire. These were designed by the pioneer of ironclad ships, Henri Dupuy de Lome, they displaced 6,700 tons and were built with a massive ram bow, to be a feature of French capital ships for the next twenty years, they were well armoured, equipped with ten 9.4-inch guns and could manage a top speed of 13 knots but still retained a full barque rig of sail. Following Solferino were the ten ships of the Provence class completed between 1865 and 1867; these were Flandre, Gauloise, Guyenne, Magnanime, Provence, Revanche, Savoie, Surveillante, Valeureuse, and Héroine averaging 6,000 tons. Their armaments varied and were altered from time to time in the 1870s being usually eight 9.4-inch and four 7.6-inch guns, their speeds varied between 13 and 14 knots, all again were barque rigged.

Design then moved from broadside main armament to broadside barbette battery ships with the Océan class completed in 1872-3, Océan, Marengo and Suffren. Much thicker armour protection had raised tonnage to an average of 8,800 tons. Their main armament included four 10-inch and four 9-inch guns, their speeds remained at 13 to 14 knots, their rig for sail was reduced to barquentine. They also carried dropping gear for four 14-inch torpedoes.

Two further ships, Friedland and Richelieu were the last to be under construction before the fall of Napoleon III, each taking nine years in building and only entering service in 1876. Friedland displaced 8,800 tons with armour and speed similar to the Océan class but with a main armament of eight 10.8-inch guns. Richelieu and the last three ships to be at sea by the end of the decade, Colbert, Trident and Redoutable were slightly larger but otherwise similar, these too lost their sail rigging after entry into service.

In support of this battle fleet were a variety of vessels, eleven ‘Second Rate’ coast defence vessels armed with 6.4-inch guns, four armoured rams with 9.4-inch guns and a speed of 12 to 13 knots to provide force behind the rams, and six coastal bombardment monitors armed with two 9.4 or 10.8-inch guns. All these, less expensive than the ‘First Rates’ and therefore welcomed politically were thought to be useful as a second line, capable of dealing with damaged enemy ‘Frist Rates’ and chasing enemy cruisers away.

The three classes of ‘armoured cruising ships’ ranged for 3,500 to 4,000 tons in size. The five smaller vessels were armed with four or six 7.6-inch guns, the six larger with six 9.4-inch and one 7.6-inch gun. The ‘First Rates’ were mostly based at Toulon, the coast defence ships at Cherbourg and cruisers at Brest poised for a sortie into the Atlantic. In addition there were thirty-eight ‘unprotected cruisers’ with tonnages and armaments varying greatly. The majority were armed with 6.4, 5.5 or 4.7-inch guns depending on their size, the larger last three had 7.6-inch guns. The earlier ships speeds did not exceed 14 knots, the last could raise 16 knots.

Much thought and experimentation was given to torpedo boats, the possibilities of the torpedo as an excellent naval defence weapon against the known ‘close blockade’ strategy of the Royal Navy in the event of war becoming even more clear. In 1875-6 nineteen small torpedo boats were built, twelve in Britain. Their tonnage ranged from 10 to 26 tons and they were poor sea boats. In 1877 a further twenty-eight all over 30 tons were built in France. The torpedoes carried were carried in a variety of ways, some as spars in the bow of the boat, others in bow tubes, others in a launching gear to be slung over the side of the boats. The boats speed was some 18 knots with crews of eight to ten men. They were presented as a mobile defence ‘David’ against an adversary’s battleship ‘Goliath’ attacking ports, and also as ‘democratic’ in comparison with the ‘reaction’ of battleships. They were very popular among young officers, a posting infinitely preferable to being a junior officer on a ‘First Rate’ even if at this stage they only served in home ports. Critics of the torpedo boats pointed out that they were dangerous for crews who became exhausted very quickly in anything approaching a choppy or rough sea, and that their chances of striking an opponent’s big ship were doubtful, especially if their target warship and others subjected them to a hailstorm of light weapon fire. Some also argued that smoke from their funnels would provide the torpedo boats with cover for a close approach, others said that smoke would confuse the torpedo boat’s aim.

Warship Construction 1880-99

The next fifteen years became ones of controversy over the structure that the Marine should adopt in the increasingly bitter ‘Cold War’ with Great Britain. At international level as well as Russia other possible naval allies were sought, one was Japan when the highly skilled designer Emile Bertin was at work in the Japanese arsenal at Yokosuka. In France in rigorous, at times passionate, debate admirals and strategists, notably Étienne Lamy, argued over the bases and ships most likely to mount a successful challenge to the Royal Navy’s two-power standard and battleship building programme. The Jeune École with Admiral Aube briefly Minister for the Marine in 1886-7 saw the battleships as expensive, vulnerable to torpedoes and a naval guerre de course as the future pattern of naval warfare. They argued that over fifty torpedo boats could be built for the cost of one battleship and small fast cruisers could sail out from worldwide points d’appui to attack British trade while all that was needed to secure metropolitan and overseas ports were flotillas of torpedo boats. Others believed that effort would have to be concentrated on a smaller number of more powerful bases, particularly if those overseas were going to require a land force garrison. Interest became focused on three areas, the Atlantic where ships from Dakar together with others in Martinique from where ships in the Caribbean could jointly threated Britain’s trade with the New World, and the Indian Ocean where Britain’s links with India could be cut and French links with Indochina made more secure. The difficulties facing the French economy in the 1880s fuelled debate at the political level. Imperialists favoured expansion into Tunisia – partly to forestall Italian ambitions – and Indochina together with designs upon Madagascar. Operations were to follow, although many argued that they were not affordable. Many naval officers too were concerned that so much of the Marine’s budget was being spent on bases and colonial interior occupation rather than on ships, while Italy was now a growing menace.

Until the middle 1890s the capital ships completed for the Marine were the nine whose construction had begun in the 1870s, together with thirteen that were completed in this period. Except for the first three, the two Courbet class, Courbet and Dévastation and the Admiral Duperré none were rigged for sail. They and others to follow in the 1890s merit their description by Oscar Parkes, the British battleship historian

Since the seventies French design had exhibited a strong leaning towards the bizarre and ‘Fierce face’. Piled up superstructures, preposterous masts, uncouth funnels, tumblehome sides and long ram bows with no attempt at achieving any symmetry or balance in profile produced an aggressive appearance …

Perhaps subconsciously the Vauban tradition had entered into the minds of constructors; it was certainly a period of great uncertainty over design and experimentation.

Courbet, a central battery ship after nine years of building entered service in 1886. She and her sister Dévastation completed in 1882 displaced 10,500 tons and were armed with four 13.4-inch guns and had a speed of 15.5 knots. Admiral Duperré of 11,000 tons was of a more advanced design with four 13.4-inch guns mounted in pairs in barbetttes near the bow and stern. Her speed was slightly slower. All three ships carried four torpedo tubes. The next six ships, four of the smaller Terrible class of 7,500 tons, Caiman, Terrible, Indomptable and Requin and two of the next class Admiral Baudin and Formidable of 11,700 tons, all followed the centre line barbette plan, the Terrible ships with two huge 16.5-inch guns and the Admiral Baudin ships with three 14-inch pieces, all with speeds of 14 knots. The next ship, Hoche was the first to have her two 13.4-inch gun main armaments in single turrets with a further armament of two 10.8-inch guns; as a ship she was faster reaching 16 knots but unstable in a seaway. Equally unstable, spoken of as ‘submarines’ were the next three ships, completed after ten years in building in 1893, were the 10,500 ton Marceau, Magenta and Neptune with twin 13.4-inch guns, two each in in barbettes fore and aft. The last ‘First Rate’ laid down in the 1880s was the 11,000 ton Brennus, with three 13.4-inch guns in two centre line turrets, two forward, on aft. Brennus also carried four of the much improved 18-inch torpedo tubes and had a speed of 18 knots. In general, all the 1880s ships were unstable, too much having been attempted on the displacement and the 13.4-inch gun was unsatisfactory, replaced in many ships by 10 or 12-inch later in service.

Less expensive than the ‘First Rate’ were ten ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two of the 5,000 tons Tonnant class were armed with two 13.4-inch guns, the remaining eight of the Fuseé and Achéron classes with a single 10.8-inch weapon. Four armoured cruising ships were completed in the 1880s, all rigged for sail with armaments of four 9.4-inch and one or two 7.6.-inch guns; they were obsolete in both design and speed, 14.5 knots, before they were even completed. Of more use was the first Protected Cruiser, Sfax, of 4,000 tons armed with six 6.4-inch and ten 5.5-inch guns, torpedo tubes and a speed of 16.7 knots. Sfax represented the Jeune École plan for point d’appui based commerce raiders. Thirteen Unprotected Cruisers of tonnage between 2,360 and 3,700 tons armed with 5.5-inch guns, some also with four 6.4-inch weapons and one with only 3.9-inch all joined the fleet. As an experiment four ‘Torpedo Cruisers’ with 3.9-inch guns and five torpedo tubes and eight fast torpedo gunboats were also built, along with a small number of sloops and conventional gunboats.

The arguments of the Jeune École were to take shape in the form of the seventy small torpedo boats that entered service in the 1880s. the first twelve were all under 30 tons, some only 9 tons, all except for two could only carry one 14-inch torpedo mounting, most could manage 17 to 19 knots. The remaining fifty-eight were larger, capable of operating in open seas, with tonnage moving from the 43 tons of the earlier boats to the 53 tons of the last. These carried four torpedoes and most reached speeds of 20 knots or more.

Much still remained experimental. It was thought at first that the smaller boats could be carried into action aboard larger warships, but it soon became clear that this idea was unworkable. The larger warships would have to come to a halt to drop the boats, causing disorder and risks to themselves, seas might be too rough, few large ships had the space to carry torpedo boats particularly if the boats themselves carried spar torpedoes, and in any case spar torpedoes could be fixed on the bows of their own picket boats. Instead a merchant transport ship, Japon, was modified as a torpedo boat carrier, carrying six small boats. But to the middle 1890s it was still claimed that the continued onset of a mass of torpedo boats would prevail over battleship squadrons though critics developed the argument that the development of searchlights would illuminate the boats for easy destruction by battleships guns.

French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part II

French battleship design had a style all of its own, backed up by intensive work and study on ship behaviour, though this was often of a theoretical rather than practical kind.

Change and Modernisation, 1890-1904

The next fifteen years were an era of unprecedented and dramatic technological developments in all aspects of naval warfare, in guns and ammunition, in torpedoes and mines, in electricity, searchlights and wireless, in triple expansion engines and water-tube boilers and the appearance of the first operational submarines. Ships completed in the 1880s were already obsolescent when they first put to sea, totally obsolete a few years later as the speed of change quickened.

For the Marine the fifteen years were also to involve a major change in strategy, the full implications of which took time to be fully accepted, no longer a guerre de course against Great Britain but urgent attention against the new and more dangerous enemy nearer home. After Fashoda it was clear that a colonial war with France could not be a success and possibly lead to a loss of colonies. The colonial powers had secured their areas of control or interest, the few remaining flashpoints were either manageable or of less importance. Britain was making it clear that she intended to retain control over the Suez Canal but would not stand in the way against French ambitions in Morocco, a territory where Germany was showing disturbing signs of interest. More serious was the evident wider ambitions of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had come to the throne in 1888 and in two years had dismissed his Chancellor, Bismarck, and begun the building of an ocean navy. Faced with this new challenge in the North Sea together with the threat of a triple alliance, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the need for an efficient modern balanced navy was now obvious and recognised by most politicians. Despite some vocal political opposition and a few areas where interests clashed, by the time of the formal 1904 Anglo-French Convention much had been achieved.

With the plaques for Alsace and Lorraine in the Paris Place de le Concorde covered with black cloth, a permanent reminder of the defeat of the French Army in 1870, the admirals had always to fight their corner against the generals. Until 1901 battleship design reflected only modification and improvement on the 1880s classes, otherwise similar in armament and performance but differing in deck and mast layout. The first five, Carnot, Charles Martel, Jauréguiberry, Masséna and Bouvet all displaced around 11,400 tons and were armed with one single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft together with two 10-inch guns in turrets on each sided amidships as main armament, all could reach 17.5 knots, and were in service by 1898. Completed in 1895-6 were also the last of the ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two 6,200 ton ships armed with a single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft. As the threat of an all-out Royal Navy blockade attack on French ports receded no further ships of this type were built.

With the next class of battleships, Charlemagne, St Louis and Gaulois French builders produced ships that began to measure up to the pre-Dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy. They had the British style twin 12-inch gun turrets fore and aft, they displaced 11,000 tons, carried a powerful secondary and torpedo armament and could steam at 18 knots. They were followed by a reversion, the Henri IV of 8,000 tons whose main armament was limited to single 10.8-inch guns in turrets fore and aft and her speed only 17 knots. To save weight this ship’s quarterdeck was only four feet above the waterline, often invisible. Iéna that followed was slightly larger with 4 12-inch guns.

In place of the Coast Defence ships the concept of the modern armoured cruiser, later after the First World War to evolve into the heavy (8-inch gun) cruiser, began to appear with the construction of the Dupuy de Lôme completed in 1895, a ship immediately conspicuous by an exaggerated ram bow. Displacing 6,700 tons she was armed with two 7.6-inch and six 6.11-inch guns and two 18-inch torpedo tubes, lightly armoured, no rigging for sail and a maximum speed of nearly 20 knots Dupuy de Lôme marked an important stage in modernisation. Five slightly smaller vessels followed, all with a main armament of two 7.6-inch guns and were succeeded by the 11,000 ton Jeanne d’ Arc, the first of what was to become a familiar sight in the First World War, the five or six funnelled French warships. She carried a mixed gun armament, two 7.6-inch guns and fourteen 5.5-inch guns but could make the speed remarkable for its time of 21.5 knots. Eleven more armoured cruisers in three classes, three of the 9,200 ton Gueydon and 9,800 ton Gloire classes armed with two 7.6-inch and eight 6.4-inch guns, and five of the smaller Dupleix class with eight 6.4-inch only. All had maximum speeds of 20.7 to 22 knots and were completed between 1902 and 1904.

Despite the ending of colonial rivalries with Great Britain and the new threats nearer home the protection of some overseas as well as home bases was still regarded as a priority despite the costs and reduced threats. Debate over the number and degree of developments and protection led to a reduction in those overseas considered essential, by 1902 some twelve had been reduced to five Martinique (Fort de France), Dakar, Diego-Suarez, Saigon and Nouméa with one possible, Han Gay in Tonkin. For these there were to be two cruiser ‘Flying Squadrons’, one based at Brest for the Atlantic and one at Diego-Suarez for areas east of Suez, with single ships based on the others now seen as of secondary value.8 More radical changes were to follow in the next ten years.

For this strategy thirty-two cruisers, in the category of Protected Cruisers entered service. These varied in tonnage, two very small of 2,400 tons, the majority between 3,300 and 5,000 and four of 7,000 tons or over. Most had four 6.4-inch guns as main armament, all except three were fitted with torpedo tubes, four were equipped for mine-laying, only the D’Entrecasteaux with two 9.4-inch guns carried major fire power. All had speeds of 19 to 22 knots with the exception of Châteaurenault, a very distinctive ship in appearance being built to resemble a four funnelled passenger liner in silhouette, and with a speed to reach 24 knots. Four small ‘torpedo cruisers’ of 1,280 tons were also built, to prove of little value.

The Jeune École obsession with torpedo boats continued with an initial programme of two hundred and ninety-four boats of between 90-100 tons armed with a single spar or two of the much improved torpedoes in tubes. A second programme ordered in 1904 and begun in the following year provided for a further seventy-five boats to be fitted with a third tube. The poor sea-keeping qualities of these small boats led, to the annoyance of on-going Jeune École purists, to a parallel programme of torpilleurs de haute-mer, slightly larger sea-going boats. These were given names rather than numbers. Except for the first nine inadequate boats the remaining thirty-six varied in tonnage between 120 to 170, two, three, a few four torpedo tubes and two or three light 37mm guns for self-defence. Except for the first nine speeds rose to twenty to twenty-five knots. A number were still in service in the early 1920s, but the very limited success of Japanese torpedo boats in their attack on Port Arthur in 1904 was to show up their deficiencies.

The construction of this very large number or torpedo boats created alarm across the Channel culminating in another nervous ‘naval scare’ in London in 1897. The Royal Navy saw a danger of swarms of small torpedo boats dashing around making simultaneous co-ordinated attacks from different directions on British battleships, confusing the big ships gunners defensive fire. The British Admiralty ordered the design and construction of the first of an entirely new class of warship, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, at the time referred to as T.B.D., but later shortened simply to ‘destroyer’. The first, Havock, entered service in 1894, she displaced 240 tons, was armed with a 12 pdr gun and three 18-inch torpedo tubes and claimed a world record working speed of 26.7 knots. Havock was regarded as a great success. Her size, speed, mix of guns and torpedoes in a gamekeeper-poacher combination set the pattern for successive generations of destroyers, British and world-wide.

The Marine was not slow to follow. Four proto-types were launched in 1899-1900, followed by twenty-eight more between 1899 and 1904. Tonnage averaged 300 tons and armaments for all were a 65 mm and six 47 mm guns, two 15-inch torpedo tubes and speeds of 20 to 21 knots.

Even more far-reaching for the future than the destroyer was serious experimental work on under-water craft, much favoured by the Marine Minister, Pelletan. At the outset opinion was divided between arguments for submersibles and arguments for submarines. Submersibles were generally steam propelled surface warships with a record of being more easy to direct and control while on the surface, but also more conspicuous and taking some ten minutes before they could close down and dive for the brief periods during a battle when they were required to submerge and attack the enemy vessels. The submarine was designed to be a fully submerged warship, slow but a boat that could approach a sea combat on the surface awash, and then dive very quickly and by the technology of the time only be located if its periscope was visible. Submerged underwater, though, the problems of clean-air breathing and hygiene generally were proving difficult. The specialist underwater naval constructor Gustav Zédé produced a small 30 ton electrically driven submarine, Gymnote in the 1880s. In 1893 a larger boat, the Gustav Zédé appeared and proved a success. She was followed by the 120 ton Narval, a steam-driven submersible with speeds of 11 knots on the surface and 15 knots submerged. In 1899 the steam-driven slightly larger submarine Farfardet later renamed Follet was built, 185 tons on the surface and 200 submerged and carrying four 15-inch torpedoes in the old ‘Dog Collar’ external launching gear. She was electric powered and reached speeds of 12 knots and 8 knots surface and underwater. Farfadet was followed by four Sirène class submersibles of 157 tons surface and 200 tons submerged to be propelled by steam petrol fuelled engines on the surface and motors submerged. These followed an order for twenty submarines of the very small Naiade class of only 68 tons to be propelled by petrol motors on the surface and electricity while plunging, but these were soon seen to be valueless and only one or two were actually build with instead in their place three purely experimental larger boats with tonnages varying between 168 and 232 tons. The designer of the Narval, Laubeuf, returned to the cause of submersibles with two Aigrette class boats of 172 tons surface and 371 submerged. The slightly larger Omega (later Argonaut) diesel propelled followed. Another project, one with low costs in mind were the two very small submarines of the Guêpe class designed to be carried on a transporter. Orders for more were later cancelled but the political preference for boats, small and cheap remained. Two more small experimental boats, Circe and Calypso, both generally similar to the Aigrettes followed, petrol driven and armed with six improved torpedoes. However, all these boats had seriously limited range of action and none could stay submerged for very long. Seen as an answer to these handicaps an old cruiser, Foudre, was fitted with deck cranes to be used as a transport for smaller submarines but the practical difficulties and delays in dropping the boats in the midst of a battle were obvious. Eyes turned to Royal Navy construction. The idea that submersibles and submarines could be another inexpensive form of defence (there were even plans for a total submarine force of one hundred and thirty boats by 1919) became discredited. Submarine theory began to move towards the British pattern of larger and faster boats designed for offensive operations.

Organisation of the Marine

After a number of unsatisfactory earlier arrangements a proper professional organisation for the Marine headed by a general staff was set up in 1882. It included directorates (bureaux) for movement and operations, statistical surveys for the Marine and foreign navies, for reserves, for mobilisation and for coast defence with a little later one for personnel. In 1899-1902 much of the authority of the Chief of Staff was transferred to the Minister’s office leaving the Chief of Staff concerned with little more than day to day administration. Personality, doctrine and strategic friction and opinion clashes led to frequent changes at Chief of Staff and fleet command levels. A Conseil Supérieur de la Marine composed mainly of serving officers advised the Minister on national policy as a figurehead body, the Minister did not have to follow its recommendations. Until 1902 naval officer inspector-generals watched over the day-to-day efficiency of ships and bases, this was replaced by an administrative control corps who reported direct to the Minister and was principally concerned with budgetary matters.

The manpower strength of the Marine rose from some 42,000(including pilots, bandsmen and boys) in 1880 to some 52,000 by 1904, the total not including reservists. Recruitment of seamen was based on men from the coastal areas where their youth had been spent at sea in fishing or as crew members of a larger ship. Some ten per cent of these men were illiterate. They could in theory be required to serve for as long as five years, thereafter they were placed on a reserve up to the age of fifty and liable for recall. In return these men, known as inscrits the whole system being called inscription militaire, received certain privileges including special fishing rights, reduced rail fares, the opportunity of contributing to a not very generous pension scheme and exemptions of their homes from any military billeting. The system led to acute drafting problems, ships going to sea with men hurriedly moved from one vessel to another, or with inadequate crews.

Far more serious though was the indiscipline, frequently open, and a legacy from the Post-Revolution rift in French society. The petty officers (sous-officiers) were not obeyed, officers obeyed only in an insubordinate or perfunctory way. One naval officer commented that he often heard the Internationale sung in the seamen’s mess decks and saw real hatred in the eyes of the individual sailors. On some occasions men simply stayed on the quayside refusing to embark. The petty officers were in despair, the officers dismayed and discouraged. The traditional paternalistic officer-sailor bonding with officers ‘tutoying’ to sailors had gone. Little attention seems to have been given to individual sailors welfare nor much sport organised. Ashore, many sailors activities centred on more traditional relaxations in areas of bases and ports known collectively as the Rue d’Alger. Ships went to sea not only inadequately crewed but with inefficient stores and incomplete ammunition holdings to add to the poor morale.

A number of sous-officiers were later commissioned as officers, but the majority of deck officers were products of secondary schools, some of which had a ‘navy stream’ for those wanting to join the Marine. Again in the majority most were middle class with some ten per cent from the aristocracy. Breton names frequently appear. Candidates had to have passed a preparation naval baccalauréat examination at almost invariably a fee-paying school. Those accepted were then sent to the officers training establishment at Brest which took the form of an old wooden hulk, the Borda, still armed with muzzle-loading guns. Cadets slept in hammocks and were treated and trained as ordinary sailors, there does not seem to have been any academic professional teaching. After a year as aspirants the bordaches as they proudly called themselves were sent to sea in a training ship, usually an old cruiser where their treatment differed little from that of the Borda. After a further period back on Borda still as aspirants a return to sea as enseignes 2e classe for two years followed, ships proceeding on long voyagers visiting foreign ports. Finally as enseignes de vaisseau and still very much under supervision the young officer received his first appointment as a ship’s officer. Engineer officers were mostly recruited from merchant shipping—and were paid very much better. A small number had had a measure of professional training at a civilian college.

For career development young officers were then sent on specialist training, torpedo, gunnery or signals. Mid-career wider training in naval strategy and tactics was opened in 1895 at an École Supérieure de la Marine which supervised instruction initially at sea on three cruisers. It was, however, very quickly replaced, following a change of government by an École des Hautes Études de la Marine in Paris in a course lasting eight months, only to be wound up with a return to the 1895 arrangement following another change of government. Old school officers held such training with disdain and it did not seem to have served any real value.

Only a minority of career officers practised religion and the abolition of naval chaplains in 1907 was not opposed. For many naval service was a career move, especially if it led to marriage with a daughter of a senior admiral or general, or the wealthy. A series of improvements in naval medicine began in 1875, ships doctors were required to have a professional qualification. The standard of the professional qualification was raised in 1895 and proper fully professional naval schools opened at Bordeaux in 1890 and in Toulon in 1896.

The metropolitan naval bases in 1904 remained Calais, Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon with Dunkerque for torpedo boats. Dry docking facilities were only slowly developed despite the increasing size of ships. Both management and industrial relations were poor. The use of private dock facilities at Le Havre, St Nazaire and Marseille was of only limited value. The major shipbuilding slipways and fitting out yards were at Brest and Lorient for larger ships, with Cherbourg, Rochefort, on the Gironde near Bordeaux and at La Seyne near Toulon for smaller vessels. Other smaller yards included one at Le Havre and one for torpedo boats as far inland as Nantes. In the rapidly developing international naval construction race France with its limited shipbuilding capabilities, together with obsolete organisation and recruitment arrangements was fast falling behind.

In the colonial empire even the five bases given priority in 1902 were now appearing more as aspirations than realities as the size of warships increased. Facilities adequate for small warships were inadequate for the larger vessels entering service which might need dry-docking, particularly if damaged in battle. Thinking became increasingly concentrated on North Africa, especially Bizerte, with significant developments to follow in the last ten years before the First World War.


HMS Taciturn, one of the ‘Super T’ conversions, by Tom Connell.

Forays by British submarines into dangerous waters off northern Russia could only happen thanks to Hitler’s scientists and engineers.

In the closing weeks of the Second Word War a special commando unit, which boasted James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, as one of its operational planners, had raced for Nazi technological secrets. It wanted to secure them before they were destroyed or the Soviets got them. One of the key achievements of 30 Amphibious Assault Unit (30 AU) was capturing snorkel technology and also advanced submarines at Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast. The British amassed nearly 100 surrendered German submarines at the Northern Irish port of Lishally, near Londonderry.

The Type XXI U-boat was a revolutionary kind of submarine, with high-speed batteries providing up to 17 knots submerged. This was extraordinary when the most Allied boats could manage submerged was 9 knots. Snorkel masts enabled Germany’s advanced diesel submarines to stay submerged – and safe from enemy attack – while venting generator fumes, recharging their batteries and sucking in fresh air.

Capable of impressive submerged endurance, via use of the snort mast (as the snorkel became known), the Type XXI had a sleek, supremely hydrodynamic hull form, with no external guns other than cannons mounted within the fin.

Combined with boosted battery power delivering high underwater speed a Type XXI did not have to surface to attack a convoy. It could fire 18 torpedoes (three salvoes) in around 20 minutes, which was as long as it took any other submarine to load a single torpedo.

The Type XXI could manage 50 hours submerged on batteries at full capacity (charged), an endurance that could be doubled by reducing energy consumption by 50 per cent. Other submarines could only achieve half an hour submerged on battery power, or 24 hours if they shut almost all equipment down. Using the snort to recharge the batteries, the prime objective for a Type XXI was an entire patrol submerged (and it took only three hours’ snorting to recharge batteries). It was also very stealthy at low speeds, using what were called creeping speed motors (on rubber mountings) to absorb noise. The Type XXI could safely dive up to 440ft (90ft deeper than the most modern Second World War-era British submarine), with a crush depth of more than 1,000ft.

Fortunately for the Allies only two ‘electroboots’ ever deployed on combat patrol during the Second World War. Crew training, technological defects common to any cutting-edge technology, and intensive bombing kept the majority of the 120 ‘electroboots’ non-operational. They were captured or destroyed. Even more remarkable were Type XVIIB boats, which used air-independent hydrogen peroxide propulsion, removing the necessity to even poke a snort mast above the surface.

Following a series of top-level meetings, it was decided the British, Americans and Russians should each have ten U-boats of all varieties, the remainder to be scuttled in Operation Deadlight.

The Soviets had limited contemporary experience on the open ocean in any kind of warship – during the Second World War the Red Navy fought mainly in littoral waters or operated along rivers and other inland waterways.

As a result the Russians requested that Royal Navy crews sail their allocated U-boats to Leningrad. The Soviets hid their lack of confidence on the high seas behind claims that they were being given defective submarines. The British had, though, delivered detailed seaworthiness assessments of the boats to their new owners.

The Americans, who took two XXIs, would base the design of their new Tang Class upon the Nazi boat type. They also reconstructed some of their newer Second World War-era submarines, under a programme entitled Greater Underwater Propulsive Power, or GUPPY, to incorporate German innovations.

Some Type XXIs were even pressed into service, the British operating two. While one was scrapped in 1949 after running on trials, the other was given to the French. They commissioned seven ex-German U-boats into their fleet, one of the Type XXIs seeing service into the late 1960s.

Even the Swedes, neutral during the conflict, recognised the necessity of acquiring revolutionary U-boats if their own navy was not to lose its status as a leading submarine operator. They raised U-3503 – scuttled inside their territorial waters – from the bottom of the Baltic and towed her to a naval base. Experts carried out a dry-dock inspection of her innovations before the submarine was scrapped. In the mid-1950s, when they needed to revive their submarine arm as part of NATO, the West Germans adopted a similar practice, locating U-boats sunk during the war and raising them.

Faced with a sudden need to match the West’s operational capability the Russians made the most of their inherited U-boats. Four of the ten they received from the British were Type XXIs, seeing service in the Soviet’s Navy’s Baltic Fleet for nine years. They also wasted no time in replicating the Type XXI in the Zulu and Whiskey classes of diesel boat. The British decided to implement what they had gleaned from the XXIs in a radical reconstruction programme for some of their T-Class submarines. Eight boats, including HMS Taciturn, were taken in hand between 1950 and 1956. Cut in two, they had a whole new section inserted containing two more electric motors and a fourth battery. It gave them a submerged top speed of between 15 and 18 knots but this could only be maintained for a short period. There were no external guns – these were removed as part of the rebuild – for they were given sleek streamlined outer casings. A large fin enclosed the bridge, periscopes and masts. Space was also made for specialist intelligence-gathering equipment.

Taciturn and her reconstructed sisters were known as the ‘Super-Ts’. Externally she bore little, if any, resemblance to the submarine that had emerged from the Vickers yard at Barrow-in-Furness in the north-west of England in 1944. Taciturn was blooded in action against the Japanese. She sank a number of small vessels and also joined forces with her sister submarine Thorough, both using their 4-inch deck guns to bombard shore targets. The first to receive the Super-T conversion, Taciturn was a perfect solution for cash-strapped Britain, almost bankrupted by the Second World War, yet needing to match the rising threat of Russian naval power. Construction of brand-new boats was not possible for some years. Submarines built to combat Hitler’s Germany and militaristic Japan were refashioned using the fruit of Nazi science to become the best Britain could send against the Soviets.

It was Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Oliver who proposed the Royal Navy’s much reduced submarine force should take the war to the enemy.

Staking out Soviet submarine bases in the Kola Peninsula and on the shores of the White Sea, they would eliminate the threat before it could break out into the vastness of the Atlantic. Oliver, who first went to sea as a midshipman in the battleship Dreadnought in 1916, also saw action in the Second World War as a cruiser captain. He had even commanded carrier strike forces, so was a well-rounded tactician, though never a submariner. His April 1949 paper – written when Oliver was Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS) – gave impetus to the conversion of Taciturn and her seven sister boats into Super-Ts. If things turned hot they would sink Soviet boats in the Barents Sea, hunting down and killing them with torpedoes, or laying mines.

The precedent for using submarines to destroy other submarines had been set in the recent world war. British boats sank 36 enemy submarines, while the Americans claimed 23 Japanese. All but one of the targets was sunk while on the surface. The distinction of hunting and killing an enemy submarine while both were submerged fell to Lieutenant James Launders in HMS Venturer. His successful attack on U-864 off Norway, on 9 February 1945, remains the only one of its kind and was achieved after Venturer trailed the zig-zagging enemy boat for some hours. Having fixed the German’s position – and likely future track – via ASDIC, Launders fired a spread of four torpedoes, at 17-second intervals. U-864 managed to evade three, but steered into the path of the fourth and was blown apart.

By the mid-1950s Britain’s navy simply had to be more aggressive and push its submarines forward, to repeat Launders’s remarkable feat in order to make up for withered global sea control capability. It had not only ceded supremacy on the high seas to America, but was facing relegation into third place by the burgeoning maritime might of the Soviets. Even before the Second World War Stalin had been urging Red Navy chiefs to build a battle fleet that would break free of the traditional coast-hugging role. Within three months of the fighting in Europe ending, Stalin decreed the USSR should create a powerful ocean-going navy. Unfortunately, the vessels that started to come off the slipways, such as Sverdlov Class cruisers, were outmoded before they were launched. They replicated Nazi technology without taking it much further.

May 1955 saw the creation of the Warsaw Pact, which militarily melded the USSR with its satellite states in Eastern Europe to counter NATO.

Emboldened by Kremlin concessions to protests for more freedom in Poland, on 23 October 1956 200,000 Hungarians took to the streets, objecting to the presence of Russian troops in their country. Their revolution was brutally suppressed by the Red Army. Around 20,000 Hungarians paid with their lives for daring to try and cast off the Soviet yoke.

Even as Russian tanks crushed dreams of democracy on the streets of Budapest, the Soviets were threatening nuclear war against Britain and France in response to an invasion of Egypt.

The Americans did not back their Second World War allies’ bid to take back control of the Suez Canal by force, while the new Soviet overlord, Nikita Khrushchev – supporting the fervent Arab nationalist leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser – warned he would unleash ‘rocket weapons’ against London and Paris.

Despite a measure of military success, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s fury at his allies going it alone that forced them, ultimately, to withdraw from Suez. The Cold War had turned nasty, but open warfare between the two armed camps had been avoided. Beyond confrontations on land, lethal shadow boxing between the naval forces of East and West was already a facet of the Cold War confrontation.

In April 1956 the mysterious disappearance, and probable murder, of a frogman trying to spy on Soviet warships within sight of Taciturn’s home base in Gosport heightened tension.

The Russians were returning the courtesy of a British naval diplomatic mission to Leningrad the previous year. As the aircraft carrier HMS Triumph and her escorts sailed up the river Neva, they passed building yards containing dozens of surface warships and submarines in various states of completion. Many in the British naval community had refused until then to believe the Soviets really were undertaking such an ambitious programme. Their hosts had not actually meant to leave so much on display. When the British naval squadron sailed back down the Neva, smokescreens were generated in front of the building yards. With Triumph’s height as an aircraft carrier, it was still possible for naval intelligence specialists to take photographs.

When the Russian Navy sent the cruiser Ordzhonikidze to Portsmouth she carried no less a person than Nikita Khrushchev. On the British side there was a great desire to learn as much as possible about the Russian warship – a temptation too hard to resist, especially as she was parked in the centre of the Hampshire harbour.

Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a well-known veteran of daring underwater exploits in the Second World War, was ordered by M16 to see what he could find out about the Ordzhonikidze. Crabb had already covertly inspected the propulsion of a Sverdlov Class cruiser in 1953 -Sverdlov herself, when the vessel was anchored at Spithead for the Coronation Review of Queen Elizabeth II – discovering an innovative bow thruster. Three years later it was worth seeing what else might be below the water-line. Crabb stayed at the Sally Port Hotel in Portsmouth with his MI6 handler, who signed the register as ‘Mr Smith’. After the former naval officer departed to carry out his dive, ‘Mr Smith’ cleansed the room of Crabb’s civilian clothes and other belongings. Newspapers were soon carrying stories about Crabb disappearing on an espionage mission. The Navy maintained he was testing new diving equipment in Stokes Bay, just down the coast, rather than diving in Portsmouth Harbour. Soviet sources said sailors aboard the cruiser had spotted a frogman. An official complaint was lodged with the Foreign Office. Nobody publicly admitted to anything. The head of MI6 was forced to resign by the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, for launching an ill-advised mission without specific authorisation by the government. The Navy had allegedly assisted MI6, providing a boat and a naval officer to support Crabb’s dive.

It was claimed the local Special Branch squad sent someone to rip out relevant pages in the hotel register.

The furious British government cancelled various military intelligence-gathering operations, including deploying submarines into the Barents Sea. This caused massive loss of face for the Royal Navy but in the absence of British boats taking part, the Americans received a confidential briefing on surveillance skills from Cdr John Coote. He had captained the Super-T boat HMS Totem on at least one recent spying mission in the Arctic. At one stage Totem had to surface so one of her officers, Peter Lucy, could carry out temporary repairs to a defective S-band search-receiver. Mounted in the periscope it picked up potential threats by detecting radars of searching aircraft and surface vessels. Normally such a procedure required a workshop, but Totem was hundreds of miles from home. Lucy would be working solo in the housing at the top of the fin and if the Russians loomed over the horizon Coote would dive the boat under him. Lucy would have to swim for his life and, if captured, probably suffer a grisly fate at the hands of Soviet interrogators. Several months later, Cdr Coote told senior British naval officers and the US Navy that intelligence gathered on the Soviet Navy in the Barents had revealed a weakness in its AS W capabilities. To gain such an edge risks were justified.

Not long after Coote showed the Americans how valuable Royal Navy missions in the Barents were, the British PM was warned that without them the US-UK defence relationship was at risk. It was felt the Americans would press ahead with the submarine surveillance programme anyway, denying the British access to data collected. Eden was still worried about the possibility of such forays sparking a hot war, so he remained true to one of his favourite sayings: ‘Peace comes first, always.’

Eden’s subsequent Suez misadventure led only to national humiliation and his resignation, in January 1957. Harold Macmillan, a firm supporter of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’, succeeded him. The new PM authorised resumption of British participation in submarine deployments to the Barents. He was only too well aware that Soviet military doctrine was following a new direction that would require intelligence gathering in Northern seas. For while Khrushchev agreed with the need for a powerful global navy he saw there was no point in trying to match Western strength, but rather to outflank it. A battle-cruiser programme was cut, the number of Sverdlovs under construction revised downwards. Khrushchev announced a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, which sought to steer the Russian armed forces away from huge, lumbering conventional formations, to smaller high-tech units. They would deploy missiles with nuclear warheads.

Many of these new weapons would, from the 1950s onwards, be tested at firing ranges and detonation test sites located on the island of Novaya Zemlya. The Barents, Arctic and Kara seas washed its shores, but it was from the western side that it was most approachable by submarines.

To Khrushchev nuclear weapons were a means to achieving superpower punch while enabling a reduction in military spending, diverting resources instead to the civilian economy. Submarines armed with missiles would be a key component of the USSR’s defence revolution. To enact this element Khrushchev turned to a man he had served alongside during the 1941–45 war, Sergei Gorshkov, making his old comrade in arms Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1957. The ascent of Gorshkov would reinvigorate the Soviet Union’s naval forces and make them more aggressive, both in home waters and overseas.

On 9 June 1957, what remained of a corpse in a diving suit – minus head and hands – was found in the sea off Chichester. It was difficult to identify, although a scar on a knee was supposedly a match for Crabb. While an inquest recorded an open verdict the coroner decided that, on balance of probability, it was him. One popular theory was that Crabb had been spotted by the Russian cruiser’s own frogmen on security duty. He had either been captured alive and taken aboard ship or killed in the water. More recently it has been suggested Crabb was sucked into the Ordzhonikidze’s screws. When at anchor in a foreign port, the cruiser turned them vigorously from time to time as a standard counter-measure against snooping frogmen.

With Crabb apparently suffering a grisly fate at the hands of the Soviet Navy – during a spying mission just a few hundred yards from Taciturn’s home berth at HMS Dolphin – did any submariner need to be reminded the Cold War could be fatal?

Aces High I

Georges Guynemer, the frail, almost sickly pilot who had risen like a meteor to become France’s ace of aces with fifty-four victories, was dead.

Those who had seen him on that last day, a hazy September morning in 1917, recalled that he had seemed particularly nervous, pacing up and down anxiously while his mechanics prepared his aircraft for flight. He had been scheduled to fly a patrol with three other pilots, but two were late in arriving and so Guynemer, impatient as ever for combat, had decided to fly with only one companion, Lieutenant Bozon-Verduraz. They had taken off together for an airstrip near Dunkirk in their SPAD S. VIIs, on whose sides was painted the white marabou insignia of Escadrille SPA 3 – L’Escadrille des Cigognes.

Less than two hours later, Bozon-Verduraz returned alone. There had been a dogfight, and he had lost sight of Guynemer. His combat report told the terse story:

‘Pilot: Bozon-Verduraz. Take-off time: 08.35. Time of landing: 10.25. Maximum altitude: 5,900 metres.

‘At 09.25, together with Captain Guynemer, attacked an enemy two-seater over the lines at Poelcapelle. Made one pass and fired thirty rounds. Captain Guynemer continued to pursue the enemy as I was obliged to break off to avoid eight single-seaters, which were preparing to attack me. I did not see Captain Guynemer again. At 10.20, attacked a two-seater at 5,900 over Poperinghe. Fired ten rounds at point-blank range, then gun jammed. Pursued the enemy, but was unable to clear the stoppage and returned to base.’

The hours went by. Guynemer was long overdue. Commandant Brocard, commanding officer of the Cigognes, spent all morning on the telephone, searching for news; there was none. Then, in the afternoon, there came a message from an infantry unit to say that a French aircraft had been seen diving into the German lines, although as yet there was no confirmation that it was Guynemer’s.

The first hint of Guynemer’s fate came three days later, when a German newspaper carried the report that Guynemer had been shot down by a German named Captain Wissemann, but it was to be another month before the news was officially confirmed. In response to a note sent via the Spanish Embassy, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin issued the following statement:

‘Captain Guynemer fell in the course of an air flight at 10.00 am on 11 September last, close to Cemetery of Honour No II to the south of Poelcapelle. A medical examination revealed that the index finger of the left hand had been shot away, and that the cause of death was a bullet in the head.’

Some time later on that September morning, the British artillery laid down a heavy barrage on the area where Guynemer was said to have fallen. After the brief examination by a German patrol soon after the crash, the pilot’s body had been left in the wreckage. After the barrage, a second patrol was sent out to bring in the remains, but they found no trace of either pilot or aircraft on the smoking, shell-cratered ground. Both had been completely obliterated.

A week or so after the death of Georges Guynemer, Captain Wissemann, who claimed to have shot him down, wrote home to his family: ‘Don’t worry about me. Never again will I meet an adversary who is half as dangerous as Guynemer.’ Only nineteen days after writing those words, Wissemann was himself shot down and killed by a man who was destined to emerge from the holocaust of the First World War as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot. His name was René Fonck.

Fonck, who had scored his early victories over the terrible battleground of the Somme in 1916 and who had joined the Cigognes in April of the following year, soon began to establish his position among the ranks of France’s leading aces. In October 1917, in the course of thirteen and a half hours’ flying time, he destroyed ten enemy aircraft using fairly simple tactics. He would fly high, so that he was almost always above his opponents; then, choosing his moment carefully, he would use his height and speed advantage to gain surprise. His aim was excellent, and a single firing pass on the dive was usually enough to send down his enemy.

By the end of 1917 Fonck’s score stood at nineteen enemy aircraft destroyed, putting him in equal third place with two more talented pilots, Captains Albert Deullin and Georges Madon. In second place was Captain Alfred Heurtaux, with twenty-one, and leading the field was Lieutenant Charles Nungesser, the senior surviving French pilot with thirty victories.

The British, too, had lost their ace of aces in the bitter air fighting of 1917. Early in the year, the score of Captain Albert Ball DSO, MC, the rising star of No 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, had been running neck and neck with that of Georges Guynemer, and the newspapers had been quick to seize on the friendly rivalry that had been growing between the two. At the beginning of May 1917 Ball had actually passed Guynemer’s total, and there had been much speculation about whether he would catch up with the leading German fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, who at that time had fifty-two kills to his credit.

Ball and No 56 Squadron had skirmished with von Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 on several occasions, but Ball had never made contact with von Richthofen personally. Then, in May 1917, the British learned that von Richthofen had gone home on leave and that his unit had been taken over by his brother, Lothar; it seemed an ideal opportunity to bring Jagdstaffel 11 to combat and, in the absence of its normal talented commander, inflict some losses on it.

In the evening of 7 May 1917, therefore, two Royal Flying Corps squadrons – one of them No 56 – set out to mount an offensive patrol over Jagdstaffel 11’s airfield at Douai. One of 56’s pilots, Cecil Lewis, described the scene:

‘The May evening is heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscapes, solid-looking as snow mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines . . . Steadily the body of scouts rises higher and higher, threading its way between the cloud precipices. Sometimes, below, the streets of a village, the corner of a wood, a few dark figures moving, glides into view like a slide into a lantern and is then hidden again . . .

‘A red light curls up from the leader’s cockpit and falls away. Action! He alters direction slightly, and the patrol, shifting throttle and rudder, keep close like a pack of hounds on the scent. He has seen, and they see soon, six scouts three thousand feet below. Black crosses! It seems interminable till the eleven come within diving distance. The pilots nurse their engines, hard-minded and set, test their guns and watch their indicators. At last the leader sways sideways, as a signal that each should take his man, and suddenly drops . . .’

As the fight was joined it suddenly began to rain, cutting down the visibility. The section leaders of No 56 Squadron tried hard to hold their men together, but in the confusion of the dogfight the squadron became badly dislocated. Some of the SE5s ran for home, others headed for a pre-arranged rendezvous over Arras. There, Albert Ball joined up with another flight commander named Crowe and the two continued their patrol, joined by a lone Spad. Near Loos, Ball suddenly fired a couple of Very lights and dived on a red-and-yellow Fokker Triplane, following it into a cloud.

It was the last time that Ball was seen alive. Of the eleven SE5s that had set out, in fact, only five returned to base.

On the German airfield at Douai, the Germans were celebrating. Not only had Lothar von Richthofen returned safely to base in a damaged aircraft, but he claimed that he had shot down Albert Ball. The claim was incorrect, and to this day controversy still surrounds Ball’s death. He was either shot down by a German machine-gun mounted on a church steeple, or became disorientated in low cloud and went out of control. The Germans buried him near Lille, and dropped a message to that effect over No 56’s aerodrome. A month later, it was announced that Ball had been awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross. His score of enemy aircraft destroyed at the time of his death was forty-three. Like Guynemer, he was just twenty-two years old.

It was the action of No 56 Squadron which, later in 1917, brought about the death of the second top-scoring German pilot after Manfred von Richthofen. He was Lieutenant Werner Voss of Jagdstaffel 10, who by the time he went on leave early in September 1917 had achieved forty-seven victories.

Within a couple of hours of his return to duty on 23 September, Voss took off in his Fokker Triplane and went looking for another victim. The triplane had first made its appearance over the front early in September and, in the hands of experienced pilots such as Voss and Richthofen, was a formidable opponent. Nevertheless, it was not invincible; Lieutenant Kurt Wolff, the leader of Jagdstaffel 11 and an ace with thirty-three victories, had been shot down and killed in one on 5 September by Flight Sub-Lieutenant N. MacGregor of No 10 (Naval) Squadron, flying a Sopwith Camel.

Voss’s victim on this first sortie of 23 September was a de Havilland DH4, which he caught and shot down as it was heading towards the British lines. On his way back to base he experienced some engine trouble, so he turned his usual aircraft over to the mechanics and got another machine ready for the next sortie. It was similar to his own in every respect apart from the colour scheme, which was silver-blue with a red nose.

At 6.00 pm, despite poor visibility, Voss took off in company with two Albatros Scouts, which then formed the main equipment of Jagdstaffel 11. Over the front line they saw an air battle in progress between a variety of British and German aircraft, including the SE5s of No 60 Squadron. Voss immediately manoeuvred into position to attack one of these, which was flown by Lieutenant H. A. Hamersley and which had become isolated from the others.

Twenty minutes earlier, six SE5s of ‘B’ Flight, No 56 Squadron, had taken off from their airfield at Estrée Blanche to carry out an offensive patrol. The flight was led by Captain James B. McCudden, who was accompanied by Lieutenants G. H. Bowman, A. P. F. Rhys-Davids, K. Muspratt, R. Maybery and R. T. C. Hoidge. Almost as soon as the SEs arrived over the front, McCudden spotted an enemy two-seater and attacked it, sending it down in flames. Re-forming his flight immediately, he then climbed hard to intercept a formation of six Albatros Scouts, slipping along just under the cloud base.

At that moment, McCudden sighted Hamersley’s lone SE fleeing for its life, with Voss in hot pursuit. Abandoning the Albatros formation, he went after the triplane in a diving turn, followed by Arthur Rhys-Davids. The pair closed in rapidly on the German, one on either side, and began to open fire in short bursts. Voss, with four more SEs coming down fast to join the other two, took the only course of action open to him: he decided to turn and fight, doubtlessly hoping that the Fokker’s manoeuvrability would enable him to hold his own until reinforcements arrived. He stood the Fokker on its wingtip and pulled round in a steep turn to face his attackers, firing as he came.

McCudden, taken completely by surprise, took the first burst through his SE’s wing and broke away sharply. At that moment, a red-nosed Albatros DV arrived and joined the battle. Its pilot, almost as skilful as Voss himself, took on the task of protecting Voss’s tail, and with his assistance the German ace abandoned his purely defensive tactics and got in some damaging shots at the SEs that were trying to out-turn him. For ten minutes the six SEs and the two German machines gyrated around the sky, the Germans looking out all the while for the expected help that would enable them to escape. It never came, and the outcome was inevitable. The combat report of Lieutenant Rhys-Davids describes the last frantic minutes of the fight:

‘The red-nosed Albatros and the triplane fought magnificently. I got in several bursts at the triplane without apparent effect, and twice placed a new drum on my Lewis gun. Eventually I got east of and slightly above the triplane and made for it, getting in a whole Lewis drum and a corresponding number of rounds from my Vickers. He made an attempt to turn in and we were so close that I was certain that we would collide. He passed my starboard wing by inches and went down. I zoomed, and saw him next with his engine apparently out, gliding east. I dived again and got one shot out of my Vickers. I reloaded, keeping in the dive, and got in another good burst, the triplane effecting a slight starboard turn, still going down. I had now overshot him, zoomed, but never saw him again.’

McCudden, having broken off the fight for the moment to change an ammunition drum, saw the triplane’s last moments. It seemed to stagger for a brief period, flying erratically; then it went into a steep dive, streaming smoke, and exploded on impact with the ground. A few moments later it was joined by the red-nosed Albatros, destroyed by the other SEs.

Later, James McCudden wrote of Voss: ‘His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.’ But perhaps the feelings of the British pilots were best summed up by young Rhys-Davids himself, the man who had ended the career of the ‘Hussar of Krefeld’, as Voss was nicknamed. As his colleagues gathered round to congratulate him, he shook his head sadly and murmured, as he set his glass aside: ‘Oh, if only I could have brought him down alive!’

Such were the young men who, in that year of 1917, brought new skills and tactics to the embryo science of air warfare, and often paid the price of experimentation with their lives. Early in 1917, the problem of making good the severe losses suffered by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the previous year had seemed almost insurmountable; in an effort to fill the gap, the War Office had ordered regimental commanders to appeal for volunteers for transfer to the flying service. Hundreds came forward, and at the same time the first Commonwealth volunteers also began to arrive. They were led by the Canadians, who, by special arrangement with the United States, had done most of their flying training in Texas and already possessed a high degree of skill.

The steady influx of these new personnel during the first weeks of 1917 did much to raise the morale of the RFC as it strove to gather its forces to meet the demands that would be imposed upon it by the coming spring offensives. These demands were dictated, first and foremost, by the continual need for effective air reconnaissance and artillery observation. Since the slow two-seat observation aircraft had to be protected, this requirement in turn gave rise to the development of offensive fighter tactics, designed to gain air superiority over an area of considerable depth behind the enemy lines and secure the observation machines, as far as possible, from interference by hostile aircraft. Also in 1917 came the growing realization that the aircraft was a highly effective weapon for harassing enemy troops and communications, and with it the development of bombing and ground-attack concepts.

The first Allied offensive of 1917 involved a major French attack on the Aisne while the British pinned down a large part of the enemy forces in the north, the main objective in their sector being the capture of Vimy Ridge. The offensive began on 17 March and ended on 4 April. The First and Third British Armies were supported by twenty-five RFC squadrons, about half of them equipped with single-seat fighters. During this battle a new British combat aircraft, the Bristol F2A Fighter, made its operational debut. Fifty F2As were built; powered by a 190 hp Rolls-Royce Falcon engine giving it a top speed of around 115 mph and armed with a centrally-mounted synchronized Vickers gun and a single Lewis mounted in the rear cockpit, the first examples arrived in France with No 48 Squadron towards the end of March.

The squadron had only six Bristols in operation at the time of its arrival at its new base, Bellevue, and they were rushed into action before their pilots had time to get used to them or to develop proper tactics with them. At first they were flown like previous two-seaters, orientated around the observer’s gun as the primary weapon, and losses were heavy. During their first patrol on 5 April, six Bristols led by No 48 Squadron’s CO, Major W. Leefe Robinson VC (who had earlier distinguished himself by shooting down the German Shütte-Lanz airship SL11 at Cuffley on 2 September 1916) encountered five Albatros DIIs led by Manfred von Richthofen. The British pilots adopted the standard two-seater tactic of turning their backs on the enemy to allow their observers to bring their guns to bear. It was a serious mistake, and four of the six – including Leefe Robinson, who spent the rest of the war in a prison camp – were shot down.

Later, in an interview with a Berlin newspaper, Richthofen was openly contemptuous of the British machine, with the result that many German pilots came to regard the Bristol Fighter as easy game – with fatal consequences to themselves. When flown offensively, in the same way as a single-seat fighter, it proved to be a superb weapon and went on to log a formidable record of success in action. Several hundred Bristol Fighters were ordered in 1917, these being the F2B version with a 220 hp Falcon II or 275 hp Falcon III engine, wider-span tailplanes, modified lower wing centre sections and an improved view from the front cockpit. The F2B eventually served with six RFC squadrons – Nos 11, 20, 22, 48, 62, and 88 – on the Western Front, as well as with No 67 (Australian) Squadron in Palestine, No 139 Squadron in Italy and in the United Kingdom with Nos 33, 36, 76 and 141 Squadrons on home defence duties. The pilot who perhaps did most to vindicate the Bristol Fighter was a Canadian, Lieutenant Andrew McKeever, who destroyed thirty enemy aircraft while flying F2Bs, his various observers shooting down eleven more.

Another new type to enter RFC service in the spring of 1917 was the SE5 single-seat fighter, which was delivered to No 56 Squadron in March. Powered by a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza engine, the aircraft had a maximum speed of 120 mph. Armament comprised a synchronized Vickers gun firing through the propeller and a drum-fed Lewis mounted over the wing centre section. Although less manoeuvrable than either the French-built Nieuports or Spads, the SE5 was faster and had an excellent rate of climb, enabling it to hold its own in combat with the latest German fighter types. The SE5s of No 56 Squadron flew their first operational patrol on 22 April 1917.

The original SE5 was followed into service, in June 1917, by the SE5a, with a 200 hp Hispano-Suiza engine. The type was first issued to Nos 56, 40 and 60 Squadrons, and by the end of the year had been delivered to Nos 24, 41, 68 and 84. Deliveries were slowed by an acute shortage of engines, but the pilots of the units that did receive the SE5a were full of praise for the aircraft’s fine flying qualities, physical strength and performance. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, in most respects, the SE5a was the Spitfire of the First World War.

It certainly had none of the vicious tendencies of the Sopwith Camel – although in fairness, once the Camel had been thoroughly mastered it was a superb fighting machine, and in fact it was to be credited with the destruction of more enemy aircraft than any other Allied type before the conflict ended. Early production Camels were powered either by the 130 hp Clerget 9B or the 150 hp Bentley BR1 rotary engine, but subsequent aircraft were fitted with either the Clerget or the 110 hp Le Rhone 9J. Armament comprised twin Vickers guns mounted in front of the cockpit, and four 20-lb Cooper bombs could be carried under the fuselage for ground attack. The first unit to receive Camels was No 4 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service, followed by No 70 Squadron RFC, both in July 1917.

Delivery of the SE5 and the Camel came too late to prevent heavy RFC losses, which continued to mount steadily during the spring of 1917. There were three main reasons for the growing casualty rate. First, the RFC was still critically deficient in adequate combat aircraft; secondly, the prevailing westerly wind – which tended to carry the mêlée of air combat deep into enemy territory – was in the Germans’ favour; and thirdly, the RFC insisted on maintaining an offensive policy throughout, no matter what the cost. Faced with superior enemy aircraft, it inevitably suffered an increase in losses because of this. By April 1917 new pilots were being sent to the front with as little as seventeen and a half hours’ flying experience, which precipitated a vicious circle: the more inexperienced the British pilots, the higher the success rate of the German fighter squadrons. By the middle of ‘Bloody April’ 1917 the average life expectancy of an RFC pilot in France had dropped to two months.

During the first week of April 1917 the RFC lost seventy-five aircraft in action, mostly victims of an emerging band of tough, resolute German air fighters nurtured in the traditions of Germany’s first air aces and fighter tacticians, Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann. At their head was Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, and other German pilots were potentially just as dangerous to the Allies: men like Bruno Loerzer, the leader of Jagdstaffel 26, who destroyed ten British aircraft during the Battle of Arras and who was to end the war with forty-five victories. More than two decades later, the highly experienced Loerzer would command Luftflotte II during the Battle of Britain. Then there was Werner Voss, the brilliant Jewish ace (what would his fate have been, one wonders, had he survived the war to experience the Nazi regime?); Erich Loewenhardt, who had forty victories in the spring of 1917 and who later went on to score sixteen more; Karl Allmenroeder and Karl Schaefer, with thirty victories each; Kurt Wolff, with twenty-seven at the time of the Battle of Arras; Otto Bernert with twenty-six; and many others who were to be numbered among the German Flying Corps’ fifty top-scorers before the end of the war.