Strategic consequences of the Ceylon attack and British reinforcement Part I

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 11792) HMS RESOLUTION and HMS FORMIDABLE of the eastern fleet sailing in the Indian Ocean.

The strategic consequences of the IJN attack on Ceylon, and the resulting exposure of the Eastern Fleet, were addressed in two joint planning staff papers dated 18 and 21 April. These drew on an updated Joint Intelligence Committee assessment, which anticipated further IJN raids and the continuing risk of a full-scale invasion of Ceylon as well as simultaneous pressure on northeast India. The key lesson the planning staff drew was that Royal Navy ship-borne air strength was greatly inferior to that of the IJN. The IJN could, therefore, exercise air superiority to command sea communications where it wished, and the Eastern Fleet was powerless to intervene. The planners judged that the first Japanese priority was to consolidate their hold on Southeast Asia and Burma, but a rapid move to drive Britain out of the war by disrupting supplies to the Middle East and India, and of Persian oil, must be tempting. SIGINT seemed to support this judgement. On 13 April, the Japanese foreign minister told the German ambassador in Tokyo that Japan was thrusting towards Ceylon and the area north of it. This thrust would extend ‘step by step’ into the western Indian Ocean. To achieve this goal, the planning staff argued, the Japanese must take Ceylon and destroy the Eastern Fleet. Safeguarding the fleet was paramount, and took precedence over holding Ceylon. The Eastern Fleet must, therefore, retreat to East Africa until it could be reinforced sufficiently to contest the central Indian Ocean on acceptable terms. The ideal target strength was five modern capital ships and seven fleet carriers, of which five and four were planned by August. In the meantime, defence of Ceylon must rely on air power.

Churchill, meanwhile, highlighted the grave risks in the Indian Ocean in letters to President Roosevelt dated 7 and 15 April. His second letter emphasised that Britain for some months could not match the naval forces the Japanese had demonstrated they were willing to deploy in the Indian Ocean. The loss of Ceylon and invasion of northeast India were real possibilities, but this would only be the beginning. There was little to stop the Japanese dominating the western Indian Ocean and undermining Britain’s whole position in the Middle East. He stressed here the consequences of losing Persian oil and the supply line to Russia. Overall, the situation was ‘more than we can bear’. He sought United States support through diversionary action in the Pacific, further reinforcement in the Atlantic to release Royal Navy units, or direct naval support in the Indian Ocean itself. This letter reflected discussion at the Defence Committee the previous day, at which General Marshall and Harry Hopkins were present.

The outcome of this Defence Committee meeting has proved controversial. The British endorsed Marshall’s proposals for an early invasion of western Europe. However, the prime minister and Brooke insisted that it was still essential to hold the Middle East, India and Australasia. A second front in Europe must not compromise these interests. The justification for their caveat has since been questioned. Brooke is accused of exaggerating the consequences that would follow Japanese control of the Indian Ocean, and demanding an open-ended commitment from the United States to prevent collapse in the Indian Ocean and Middle East. The implication is that the British leadership was engaged in deliberate deception. They had no real intention of committing to a second front at this time, but sought to keep the United States focused on ‘Germany first’, while they pursued their own interests.

It is important to look dispassionately at the threat to the Indian Ocean as it appeared at the time. Charging Brooke with exaggeration reflects hindsight, rather than a fair appraisal of the risks as Brooke must have seen them. In the wake of Nagumo’s raid, a return operation by Japan to seize Ceylon looked entirely credible. So did a concerted IJN effort across the rest of 1942, by raiders, submarines and select use of carrier task forces, to cut effective communication in the western Indian Ocean. If the Japanese pursued this option all-out, there was little the US Navy could do in the Pacific during 1942 to prevent them. From the British perspective, an IJN offensive might, at a minimum, eliminate the prospect of a British Empire material advantage in the North African campaign by the autumn. It could also drastically reduce oil supplies across the eastern theatre, with major consequences for the empire war effort, and for any United States operations mounted from India and Australia. Finally, it would severely disrupt aid on what was becoming the primary military lend-lease route to Russia, with unknowable consequences for Russia’s survival. Japan might achieve even more. Countering these risks had to be a top priority.

Nor was Britain seeking an ‘open-ended commitment’. Britain wanted American support for a limited period of two and a half months, while sufficient reinforcements were gathered to make the Eastern Fleet reasonably competitive with the maximum force the Japanese were likely to deploy. In effect, Britain’s war planners must bridge a period while key Royal Navy units were under repair, or working up, and before new construction became available. Valiant was under repair in Durban following her damage at Alexandria in December and expected to complete in June. Nelson and Rodney were working up after repair and refit. The carriers Eagle and Furious were in refit. The new battleships Anson and Howe were expected to be operational in August and October respectively. By the time the Defence Committee met again just a week later on 22 April, a target date of 30 June had been set for assembling the enhanced Eastern Fleet and the relevant forces earmarked. This fleet would have been significantly stronger than the forces available to the US Navy to hold Hawaii.

The British leadership may well have been privately doubtful that Marshall’s vision for an early second front reflected realistic understanding of the logistics and the quality of enemy opposition. Hindsight suggests they were right. They inevitably prioritised the protection of the wider empire, because it defined Britain’s status as a world power but, more important, because it provided essential war resources. Many in the United States leadership also supported Churchill’s emphasis on the Middle East, India and Australasia, for their own reasons.

In response to British pleas, the United States judged it could not help in the Indian Ocean, but it did offer limited support in the Atlantic and, most important, diversionary action was underway in the Pacific. This was the bombing raid on Tokyo led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. This raid by a small force of B-25 bombers launched from the US Navy carriers Enterprise and Hornet took place on 18 April. The military impact was negligible, but the psychological effect on the Japanese military leadership was profound. It did not initiate the Midway operation, which had already been approved two weeks previously. However, it underlined Yamamoto’s conviction that the US Navy carrier force must be eliminated before other options, including further offensive action in the Indian Ocean, were contemplated. Crucially, it also caused the Japanese to add a second Midway objective – the occupation of the island. The resulting conflict of priorities would have fatal consequences. Pound, meanwhile, underlined British anxieties during a visit to Washington in late April, and received sufficient assurances from Admiral King, the new Chief of Naval Operations, to confirm the feasibility of giving significant reinforcements to Somerville.

The chiefs of staff copied the latest joint planning staff assessment to Somerville on 23 April. Its conclusion encapsulated how London saw the position in the East at this time:

If the Japanese press boldly westwards, without pause for consolidation and are not deterred by offensive activities or threats by the Eastern Fleet or American Fleet, nor by the rapid reinforcement of our air forces in North-East India, then the Indian Empire is in grave danger. The security of the Middle East and its essential supply lines will be threatened. The Middle East and India are inter-dependent.

Somerville, shocked by the ferocity of the IJN strike on the Dorsetshire force, and now aware how close he had come to disaster, agreed with the London view. He reinforced the disparity in air power in a sharp exchange with the Admiralty at the beginning of May. For daytime air strike, the Royal Navy was ‘completely outclassed’ by the Japanese, though Somerville judged that in low cloud or at night it had an advantage. He hoped by now it was appreciated that the Fleet Air Arm, ‘suffering from arrested development for many years’, could not compete successfully with an IJN carrier arm, ‘which had devoted itself to producing aircraft fit for sailors to fly in’. Pending the arrival of better aircraft, he proposed a substantial increase in fighter complement, employing deck parking and outriggers where necessary. The prime minister took a personal interest in Somerville’s proposals, which were broadly agreed, though it was recognised that achieving an adequate supply of Martlets would require high-level political lobbying in the United States.

Fleet Air Arm aircraft deficiencies were not easily solved. Despite constant British lobbying at the highest level, the flow of Martlet fighters from the United States remained barely adequate through most of 1942. It was well into 1943 before the first new strike aircraft arrived. In the meantime, Somerville’s belief that the IJN had deployed fighter-bombers led the Admiralty briefly to contemplate employing unsuitable Hurricane IIs in a similar role. Some in the Royal Navy leadership, including Pound, still struggled to understand the revolutionary nature of carrier warfare as practised by the IJN, and shortly by the US Navy. This was partly poor intelligence assessment, which continued to underestimate the number and quality of IJN aircraft deployed in their carriers and, therefore, their lead over an equivalent Royal Navy force. It also reflected their persistent belief that the IJN would deploy capital ship raiders against trade on the German Atlantic model. This led to over-emphasis on comparative capital ship strength when measuring the effectiveness of the Eastern Fleet. Churchill also still defaulted to the battleship as the ultimate arbiter of strength.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to imply that the Royal Navy downplayed the role of the carrier in its future force planning, and its importance in bringing the eastern war to a successful conclusion. Its commitment to the carrier as a fleet unit is evident in the extraordinary total of sixteen new light carriers of the Colossus and Majestic classes ordered in the single year 1942, when British war resources, not least shipbuilding capacity, were stretched to the limit. These highly successful ships provided two-thirds of the aircraft capacity at two-thirds of the cost of the latest Illustrious units. More important, by adopting commercial standards of construction and using commercial shipyards, they were completed much more quickly, with the first units commissioned in an average of twenty-seven months. Before the end of the year, the newly appointed Deputy First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Charles Kennedy-Purvis, was powerfully arguing that carriers represented ‘the core of the future fleet’, although Pound, still attached to the battleship, preferred the formula, ‘the carrier is indispensable’.

The few accounts of the Indian Ocean theatre in 1942 describe the Eastern Fleet, which collected at Kilindini in Kenya during April after the Ceylon raid, as an ineffective force incapable of contesting further serious IJN incursions. Its survival depended on keeping its distance until the US Navy victories at the Coral Sea and Midway rendered its existence largely irrelevant. Its status is seen, therefore, as confirmation of chronic British over-stretch, and Royal Navy inability to meet the demands of modern air warfare at sea. This picture is misleading. Kilindini did, indeed, become the primary base for the Eastern Fleet for the rest of 1942. However, Somerville continued to deploy a fast carrier force, broadly equivalent to the Force A of early April, to the central Indian Ocean on a regular basis over the next six months. He operated from, or around, Ceylon for almost 50 per cent of this period.

Furthermore, during April and May, in line with the joint planning staff recommendations on 18 April and the subsequent Defence Committee discussions, and the promises of indirect support from Washington, the Admiralty redoubled its efforts to send significant reinforcements to the Indian Ocean. By September at the latest, it intended to return an enhanced Eastern Fleet to Ceylon, with six modern or modernised capital ships and four fleet carriers. This was broadly the force planned in Moore’s December 1941 paper, but with additions. Three-quarters of the Royal Navy’s major units would be in the Indian Ocean. The Home Fleet would be reduced to a minimum, while defence of the Mediterranean would rest on air power and light forces.218 The Ceylon bases were to be upgraded in the interim, with a Ceylon air group of nine Royal Air Force squadrons, including a Beaufort torpedo force.

These were, by any standard, serious forces, which demonstrated the continuing naval priority accorded to the eastern theatre. Both the initial fast carrier force and the Ceylon air group available in May took time to achieve what Somerville felt was an acceptable operational standard, but the enhanced fleet planned for the autumn could have contested the central Indian Ocean with every prospect of success. The Admiralty also recognised that this enhanced Eastern Fleet would be a sustained commitment with first call on aircraft carriers for the foreseeable future. At the end of 1943, it planned four fleet carriers and six escort carriers deployed in the Indian Ocean, with one fleet carrier and sixteen escort carriers allocated to the Home Fleet, and no carriers at all in the Mediterranean.

The Fleet Air Arm aircraft limitations highlighted by Somerville would have persisted in the enhanced Eastern Fleet carrier force. However, the Royal Navy technological lead in radar and VHF radio, and their exploitation, substantially compensated for the continuing disparity in aircraft numbers and quality. The training and experience shortfall so evident to Somerville in April would also have been addressed. If Indomitable, Formidable and Illustrious had all remained in the Indian Ocean through 1942, these three carriers alone would have deployed some eighty fighters and sixty strike aircraft between them in September. The fighters would have included fifty Martlets. This Royal Navy fighter strength would be comparable to that deployed by the three US Navy carriers at Midway in June, but the Royal Navy had better radar detection and direction. It would have posed a formidable defence to any likely IJN air strike. Sixty ASV-equipped Albacores and Swordfish would have been an equally formidable night strike force. Furthermore, the disparity between IJN and Royal Navy numbers was reducing through 1942, owing to the increasing difficulty the IJN had in maintaining its frontline strength. The IJN Midway strike force only had 151 aircraft.

Proof that the Royal Navy could conduct advanced multi-carrier operations against the most sophisticated air opposition by the second half of 1942 is demonstrated by its performance in Operation Pedestal, the convoy run to relieve Malta in August. Pedestal involved four carriers, including Somerville’s Indomitable, transferred from the Indian Ocean. The three carriers charged with air defence deployed seventy-two fighters against an estimated Axis force of 650 aircraft employed against the convoy during a three-day running battle between 11 and 14 August. Although convoy losses, both merchant vessels and naval escort, were high, the majority were caused by submarine and E-boat action, not air attack, where the defence proved effective. The two most intense days of air attack on 11 and 12 August only damaged one of the merchant vessels, their primary target, although they achieved minor damage to Victorious and more serious damage to Indomitable. This reflected excellent fighter defence from the carriers, with sophisticated use of radar and aircraft direction, and intense anti-aircraft fire from a well-constructed screen. Indeed, on the morning of 12 August, 117 Italian aircraft and fifty-eight German achieved just the one ineffective hit on the carrier Victorious. Never before had the Axis air forces used so many aircraft for so little result.226 Despite the losses, the convoy was a strategic success. Enough supplies got through to enable Malta to survive, with important implications for the eastern theatre. As noted previously, it is doubtful whether either the IJN or US Navy could have carried out a comparable operation, and in such a complex multi-threat environment, against an equivalent level of air attack at this time.

While established history has underestimated the true potential of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean during 1942, it has overestimated that of the IJN. Joint planning staff assessments of mid-April, arguing that the IJN could achieve air superiority where it wished, at least in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean but potentially further west too, were only true within narrow limits. It was one thing to conduct raids like Operation C. It was another to mount the sustained aerial effort necessary to capture Ceylon, or to provide the logistic back-up required for deep operations to challenge the Eastern Fleet and disrupt communications along the African coast and into the Persian Gulf. The First Air Fleet was not capable of any immediate follow up to Operation C. After six months of intense operations, it required maintenance and replenishment. More seriously, the IJN was struggling to maintain its frontline air strength. Six months into the war, and immediately before the Midway campaign, IJN aircraft complements, especially in the carrier force, were not just ‘fraying around the edges’, but were ‘downright awful’.

On 7 December 1941 aircraft strength within the overall carrier force was 473, with just twenty-two reserves. By the end of May, naval fighter production had kept pace with losses, with a net gain over this period of 121. However, production of the two main carrier attack aircraft, the Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 torpedo bomber and Aichi D3A1 Type 99 dive-bomber, was woeful, with just 143 aircraft built against losses of 273, a net deficit of 130. Incredibly, no Type 99s were produced during the four months December 1941 to March 1942. The available frontline carrier attack force by the time of Midway had therefore declined a staggering 40 per cent. Neither Nakajima nor Aichi had adequately prepared for wartime output, and both companies were focusing their attention on successor aircraft at the expense of existing types. IJN land bomber strength was better. Production almost kept pace with losses over the first six months of the war, with a net deficit of just seventeen, easily covered by reserves. However, total IJN land bomber strength at the start of the war was just 339 aircraft with 106 reserves. This was a small force to cover the numerous commitments the IJN faced in mid-1942.

To mount a successful invasion of Ceylon, the Japanese had to eliminate any British air threat, and generate sufficient air support for their landing forces to overcome a defence force of two Australian brigades. The necessary air effort could only come from a carrier force. Although, in theory, the Japanese could also have deployed land-based bombers from the Andaman Islands, these were 650 miles away. The navigation challenges were formidable, and the aircraft vulnerable to Royal Air Force radar-directed fighters. The Japanese could have attacked Ceylon in place of Midway at the beginning of June and with a similar force. This is the scale of attack the joint planning staff anticipated when preparing the ‘Revised Defence Plan for Ceylon’ at the end of April. They assumed attack by 250 aircraft, bombardment by a capital ship force, and a large invasion force. The Royal Air Force reinforcements in place by June would have made the outcome much more finely balanced than in April. The Japanese would have risked unacceptable levels of attrition, leaving them wide open to harassment by the more effective Eastern Fleet, and through American intervention elsewhere.

By June, an IJN carrier force would have faced three Hurricane squadrons, comprising sixty-four aircraft and a further 50 per cent reserves, and three strike squadrons, also with 50 per cent reserves, one of which had Beaufort torpedo bombers. Radar coverage and anti-aircraft defences had significantly improved. Unless the Japanese could use Ceylon as a base, sustained operations in the western Indian Ocean were problematic. Even a limited raid would be difficult. Japan’s shortage of aircraft also demonstrates that British fears regarding their use of Madagascar were exaggerated. It might have been possible to base a small submarine force there, but there was little prospect of sparing aircraft to deploy there during 1942. Such aircraft could only have been flown in from carriers with the necessary support personnel coming by ship, all deployed under cover of a substantial task force.

Neither the British nor the Americans had intelligence at this stage to enlighten them on the specific problems faced by the First Air Fleet. However, Churchill’s view of prospects in the Indian Ocean underwent a remarkable turnaround within weeks of his gloomy letter of 15 April to the president. As early as 24 April, he advised the president of Eastern Fleet reinforcement plans, which he hoped would complete by the end of June. The Royal Navy would then be capable of dealing with a ‘very heavy IJN detachment’. By mid-May he was confident that the capture of Madagascar was beyond Japan’s power and that the reinforced Eastern Fleet, comprising four modernised battleships (Warspite, Valiant, Nelson, Rodney), the four ‘R’ class and three carriers (Indomitable, Formidable, Illustrious), would be re-established in Ceylon by July. He confirmed these reinforcements to Field Marshal Smuts, who had stressed the critical importance of holding the Indian Ocean, at the end of May. During May he also increasingly badgered the chiefs of staff, joint planning staff, and indirectly Somerville, to consider offensive operations in the eastern Indian Ocean in the autumn.


Strategic consequences of the Ceylon attack and British reinforcement Part II

“HMS Warspite of the Eastern Fleet and Flagship of Admiral Sir James Sommerville, underway in the Indian Ocean.”

The prime minister’s confidence that the Eastern Fleet with its planned reinforcements, together with the Royal Air Force additions in Ceylon and India, could meet further Japanese attacks went beyond that of the naval staff and, indeed, Somerville. Where did this confidence come from? It was partly no doubt over-simplistic ‘bean counting’ – his belief that a Royal Navy force of four modernised capital ships and three modern fleet carriers should be able to deal with an equivalent IJN force. The passage of time helped – he intuitively realised the Japanese had a limited window for operations in the west before increasing United States strength made these too risky. This time factor applied to the Germans also. At the end of May the prime minister acknowledged the risk of a German drive southward into the Middle East from the Caucasus, also highlighted by Smuts, but noted: ‘The year is advancing and the Germans have a long way to go …’. Above all, he retained faith in the ability of the US Navy to pose a threat in the Pacific, which the Doolittle raid and Coral Sea action at the beginning of May amply confirmed.

The evolving intelligence picture also probably encouraged the prime minister.240 NID reported (correctly) on 19 April that the bulk of the IJN forces deployed in the Indian Ocean were returning to Japan, although the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku might be redeployed for operations in the southwest Pacific. Successive NID assessments over the next month confirmed the IJN was conducting a major redeployment back to Japan, probably aimed at future operations in the central Pacific. Naval forces in the southern area would be sharply reduced. The Joint Intelligence Committee assessed in mid-May that the bulk of the Japanese fleet was deployed between the Mandates and New Guinea, with no indication that significant forces were being earmarked for the Indian Ocean.

At the end of May 1942, the joint planning staff considered how the war against Japan should be prosecuted. They correctly identified two significant Japanese vulnerabilities, which were relevant to its ability to conduct sustained operations in the Indian Ocean. They judged that Japan’s frontline air strength was small in relation to the commitments it had now acquired, and that aircraft production was too low to sustain even this frontline if it undertook major operations. They also emphasised Japan’s dependence on Netherlands East Indies oil. In exploiting this, it faced long sea routes, an acute shortage of tankers, and quite inadequate anti-submarine forces. In mid-June the Joint Intelligence Committee produced a more detailed assessment of Japan’s air capability after six months of war. Although it admitted its figures for aircraft losses were of variable quality, and it had no precise intelligence on production rates, its estimates for frontline strength were accurate. It correctly forecast that production was struggling to keep up with losses, as the planning staff had already suggested.

In their look ahead, the joint planning staff also reviewed the concept of a joint British-American fleet taking the offensive in the Pacific. Redeploying the bulk of Royal Navy major units to the Pacific meant carrying risk in the Indian Ocean. This transfer could only be considered when retained defences were adequate, when reinforcements had made Australasia secure, and when the arrival of US Navy new build ensured adequate superiority over the IJN. This thinking reflected that conveyed to eastern theatre commanders and Joint Staff Mission Washington some six weeks earlier on 15 April. They had then argued that it was currently impossible to cover Allied interests across two oceans from a single base. It was essential, on the one hand, to cover India, the Middle East and Persian oil, and, on the other, the United States west coast, Hawaii, and communications across the Pacific to Australasia. The Indian Ocean was critical to the British Empire, but it covered no comparable interests for Japan. It consequently offered no offensive potential. To defeat Japan, a strategic offensive in the Pacific would be necessary, but this was only possible once vital interests elsewhere were secure.

In parallel with the latest joint planning staff deliberations, Pound received requests from Admiral King for more immediate help to the US Navy, which had seen its effective carrier strength cut by half following the Coral Sea action. King would accept a diversion operation by the Eastern Fleet, but would prefer the transfer of one or more Royal Navy carriers to the southwest Pacific. Theoretically, Britain had an opportunity here to take an early stake in the Pacific campaign and buy significant influence for minimal investment. She also risked lasting resentment from King and the US Navy if she refused to help and Midway turned out badly. Pound was reluctant to weaken the Eastern Fleet while a major IJN attack in the Indian Ocean remained possible, and King failed to make a persuasive case that Royal Navy intervention in the Pacific would make sufficient difference to compensate. Time and distance, and the difficulty arranging logistic support, also argued against the transfer, which was not therefore pursued.

The first significant reinforcements reached Somerville at the beginning of May, part of the forces allocated to seize Madagascar (Operation Ironclad). These were a third fleet carrier, Illustrious, and the heavy cruiser Devonshire. Three other modern cruisers reached him from new build or refit during the next two months. The Eastern Fleet was still planned to reach a strength by the autumn of four modernised battleships, three fleet carriers, one 8in cruiser, five to six modern 6in cruisers, two older 6in cruisers, sixteen modern destroyers, and nine to twelve submarines. In addition, the four ‘R’ class, with six to seven older cruisers and nine old destroyers, would be retained for trade protection duties. This fleet was comparable in size to the ‘maximum Eastern Fleet’ of August 1939.

In the event, the strength of the Eastern Fleet peaked in early July. By then it had two modernised battleships, Warspite and Valiant (the latter about to work up, following damage repair at Durban), two fleet carriers Formidable and Illustrious (Indomitable had departed a week earlier for Pedestal), two ‘R’-class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Resolution (Ramillies had been damaged by IJN submarine attack), one heavy cruiser, three modern 6in cruisers, six older cruisers and nine destroyers. The fleet now had a more modern core than in April, and was better trained and more cohesive as a fighting force. It remained weak in destroyers, which would constrain Somerville’s mobility in the coming months.

The further reinforcements proposed during April and May never arrived. From early July, Eastern Fleet strength rapidly declined. By the autumn, Somerville was down to one modernised battleship and one carrier. He did not recover the mid-1942 strength until early 1944. There were two related reasons for this reduction: the crippling of the IJN carrier arm at Midway on 4 June, and the demands of the Mediterranean. Once the scale of the US Navy achievement at Midway was evident, it appeared to the British that IJN ability to intervene in the western Indian Ocean with anything more than occasional surface raiders or submarines had been eliminated. By early September, the Joint Intelligence Committee judged that Japan now lacked the resources to pursue major new commitments and would adopt a defensive perimeter strategy. The threat to Persian oil would remain a British anxiety into the autumn, but post-Midway, the primary risk was from German attack in the west or north. Ironically, at the moment Midway took place, the Japanese Army general staff revived the idea of major operations in the Indian Ocean, including the seizure of Ceylon, to which they had been distinctly lukewarm in February. Planning continued during June and an Army Directive (No 1196) was produced on 29 June. The reason for this new enthusiasm was the perceived success of the German drive towards Egypt, which resurrected the prospect of an Axis ‘junction’ in the Middle East, and for knocking Britain out of the war. The IJN endorsed the concept, but had to defer to resource realities, especially as the Guadalcanal campaign got underway.

The British war leadership were clear during the first five months of 1942 that the Indian Ocean took priority over the Mediterranean. Actual and planned naval reinforcements, largely at Mediterranean expense, reflected that. This raised the difficult question of sustaining Malta. Experience demonstrated that supply convoys were only possible with substantial naval cover. If Somerville was to receive his planned reinforcements, such cover was not possible. A proposal was therefore developed during April for a major part of the Eastern Fleet to deploy through the Suez Canal for the two weeks necessary to run a convoy to Malta from Alexandria. This risky plan was put on hold when it was assessed Malta could hold out until August. However, an August convoy was essential if Malta was to survive. It meant either resurrecting the Eastern Fleet option, or running a convoy from the west, which required Somerville to release one of his three carriers to reinforce Force H. The western option was militarily more attractive, and Midway made the release of Indomitable in mid-July possible.

By the time this western convoy operation (Pedestal) took place, the wider strategic context had further evolved and the major Anglo-American landing in northwest Africa, codenamed Torch, was planned for November. The political and strategic debates that led to Torch, and the campaign itself, are outside the scope of this book. However, it is important to underline how Torch linked with, and influenced, the naval defence of the eastern empire. The most obvious impact lay in the substantial resources required to execute Torch, for which the Royal Navy provided about two-thirds of the naval forces. They included two battleships, Rodney and Duke of York, the battlecruiser Renown, three fleet carriers (Victorious, Formidable and Furious), the light carrier Argus, three escort carriers, nine cruisers and forty-three destroyers. To help generate these forces it was necessary not only to abandon the planned buildup of the Eastern Fleet, but to make substantial further withdrawals from Somerville, including one of his remaining two carriers, Formidable. She was required because Indomitable had been badly damaged in the Pedestal convoy and was therefore not available for Torch. As the prime minister emphasised to his deputy Clement Attlee, this was neither a permanent withdrawal from the East, nor a sign that the East was unimportant. It was a deliberate strategic choice to apply Britain’s scarce naval resources where they had most effect. If the Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean had sharply reduced after Midway, Britain again had options.

Churchill apparently hoped that the reduction of the Eastern Fleet would be for a few months. In the event, in the absence of any new Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean, successive Mediterranean demands following Torch left the Eastern Fleet in a Cinderella state throughout 1943. However, the 1943 Mediterranean campaign was a staged affair, and the successive Royal Navy commitments here were not inevitable. If the Japanese threat had resumed, the Royal Navy could have redeployed to the Indian Ocean earlier than it did. The Royal Navy Torch force, including its three capital ships, three fleet carriers, and three escort carriers, was the force that would have gone to Somerville in place of Torch if the Japanese had pursued a major offensive into the western half of the Indian Ocean in the second half of 1942.

The success of Torch influenced Britain’s eastern defence problem in crucial ways. It removed any possibility of the Germans securing new Atlantic bases at a critical stage in the U-boat war. It also secured the eastern empire irrevocably from any Axis threat on its western boundary. These two threats had continued to exercise British planners through the summer, as they contemplated the possibility of Russian defeat. In July the joint planners anticipated that if Russia collapsed, Germany would embark on a strategy to seize Atlantic bases and Middle East oil, which almost exactly mirrored the OKW strategic survey of August. As late as October, the planners judged – ‘we are not yet out of the dangerous period of the war: a major false step may still jeopardise our prospects of victory’.

It took longer to clear the Axis from North Africa than the Allies hoped, but after Torch the result was not in doubt. Allied mastery of North Africa then opened up the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, and from there via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, with the first through cargo convoy from Gibraltar to Suez running in May 1943.266 Reopening Mediterranean transit made it much easier to move reinforcements to secure the Indian front against Japan, and to boost supplies to Russia through the Persian Gulf. In the long run it saved substantial shipping resources. Supplies on the Persian route to Russia in the second half of 1943 were approximately double those in the first half, and more than double those delivered by the Arctic convoys. The Persian route was by far the most important route for supplies delivered to Russia under the Third Protocol from October 1943 to end June 1944, and always had spare capacity if other routes had failed.

Finally, the Torch campaign was catastrophic for the German air force. The Luftwaffe lost 2422 aircraft in the Mediterranean over the seven months from November 1942 to end May 1943. This represented 40 per cent of its overall frontline strength in all theatres at the beginning of November. The Mediterranean losses broadly equalled those on the Russian front in the same period, although in some categories, notably fighters, they were much higher. The German response to Torch also absorbed large numbers of transport aircraft to build up their forces in Tunisia; Ju52s were deployed in November and December, of which half had been lost by end January. The despatch of these precious heavy transport aircraft to the Mediterranean significantly reduced German airlift capacity at Stalingrad. By reducing German air power, Torch therefore made a direct and important contribution to the Stalingrad battle, and then severely hampered German prospects for any lasting recovery in the East. This contribution to Stalingrad and its aftermath must be weighed alongside the simultaneous lend-lease aid delivered through Persia, the impact of which was highlighted earlier. Even if the Germans had achieved a more successful outcome to their 1942 southern offensive in Russia, the air losses suffered in the Torch campaign would have left them insufficient air support to contemplate the early invasion of the Middle East from the north, which the British so feared.

President Roosevelt anticipated these Torch achievements in the instructions he gave to Marshall and King prior to their visit to London in July 1942. He stressed the need to maintain a ‘Germany first’ strategy, and not to be diverted by Japan. He emphasised his continuing commitment to a cross-channel invasion (Roundup) in 1943, while noting that its feasibility would depend on events in Russia. Less recognised is the importance he placed on holding the Middle East. Losing the Middle East meant losing Egypt and the Suez Canal, and thereafter potentially Syria, Iraq oil and access to Persian oil. This would permit a junction between Germany and Japan, and result in the probable loss of the Indian Ocean. There was also a continuing risk of a German move into northwest Africa, with severe consequences for Atlantic communications. Holding the Middle East required continuing American support on existing fronts, but he commended the advantages of a landing on the Atlantic coast against Germany’s back door. Roosevelt’s arguments here, notably his stress on the Atlantic trade war, the importance of Persian oil and the Persian supply route, precisely echoed those deployed by Churchill a year earlier in May 1941.

In the autumn of 1942 the naval defence of the eastern empire had come full circle. The Indian Ocean, so critical not just to Britain’s position in the East, but to the whole Allied war effort in the first half of that year, had reverted to a calm backwater. Meanwhile, the need and opportunity to remove the western Axis threat to the Middle East had moved centre stage. Priorities had changed, and Royal Navy resources, in the view of the British war leadership, were now better deployed elsewhere than with Somerville. That meant the Mediterranean during 1943, but it also included deploying the fleet carrier Victorious to help the US Navy Pacific Fleet for much of that year, as well.

Royal Navy commitment to the eastern theatre: critical to Allied success

The Royal Navy was over-stretched in 1942, but it faced an inescapable commitment in the eastern theatre for the first half of that year. If the Axis had secured control of the Indian Ocean, denying Britain the resources of India and Australasia, and cutting the supply lines to the Middle East and Russia, while giving Germany potential control of Persian oil, the Allied task would have been immeasurably harder. Indeed, clear victory might have been impossible. The Royal Navy had to counter this risk. It had just enough latent strength in modern ships, modern technology, fighting effectiveness, and global support and experience, to do this, provided it had enough time to redeploy the necessary forces.

The weakness of Royal Navy forces off Ceylon in April 1942 reflected temporary limitations and was not representative of what the Royal Navy could do if required. Its ability, successively through 1942 to deploy a significant Eastern Fleet; plan major reinforcements for that fleet; project a substantial expeditionary force 7000 miles from the United Kingdom to seize Madagascar in May; mount the complex Pedestal operation at the other end of Africa, using some of the same forces, just two months later; and finally to mobilise 160 warships, including seven carriers, for Torch, demonstrates that the picture of Royal Navy power being in decline is overdone. The Royal Navy remained a strong and resilient force with global reach. Somerville undoubtedly hazarded his fleet at Ceylon, but came close to inflicting serious damage on the IJN.

The standard portrayal of a Royal Navy reduced to tokenism in the East, the inevitable consequence of a flawed interwar Singapore strategy, is misplaced. In the ultimate crisis, the British war leadership was prepared to withdraw all major units from the Mediterranean and run significant risks with the Home Fleet in order to secure the East. Despite some limitations, the fleet available to Somerville at the beginning of July 1942, before redeployment to the Mediterranean began, was stronger than any fleet the Royal Navy had deployed in the war to date, and comparable with the US Navy Pacific Fleet at that time. The second quarter of 1942 in the Indian Ocean is best viewed as a window of vulnerability. If the Japanese had made the Indian Ocean their main focus, they had the chance, for a short period, to bring more force to bear than Britain could, and perhaps radically to shift the global strategic balance, with incalculable consequences for the future direction of the war. Given time, Britain still had just enough capacity to close the window off.

Torpedo [Sea Mine]

Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoped for quick victories that would sap the will of the Union to fight. He also needed a defensive strategy to counter the North’s “Anaconda Plan,” a naval blockade aimed at crushing the rebellion. To forestall this scheme, the Confederates put gunpowder to work in a class of weapons whose use inflames controversy even today.

During the Civil War, the word “torpedo” meant a device containing a charge of gunpowder and intended to sink or disable a ship, or a similar type of buried explosive that we would call a land mine. The idea was not new. Mines had been used in China as early as the thirteenth century. The steamboat inventor Robert Fulton had experimented with torpedoes, and they had been used in the recent Crimean War.

The question of whether such a device was an ethical means of waging war was not a settled question. The torpedo and related weapons were sneaky and indiscriminate. Gunpowder had already expanded the distance at which a man could kill. Some thought that torpedoes made war unacceptably mechanical, anonymous, and inhuman. Like guns before them, they were disparaged as the tools of cowards, offenses against decency and civilized warfare.

The man most responsible for this ingenious and remarkably effective Confederate use of gunpowder was General Gabriel Rains, older brother of the South’s explosives wizard. That both men were involved with gunpowder was something of a coincidence: Fourteen year apart in age, they had scant personal relationship and never worked directly together.

In the spring of 1862, with the Confederates retreating from Yorktown, Virginia, the elder Rains commanded an ineffectual rearguard. To gain time he ordered his troops to bury 8-and 10-inch artillery shells with detonators attached “simply as a desperate effort to distance our men from the pursuing Union cavalry.” The shells exploded and whole companies of Yankees bolted in panic. Union general George McClellan roared that “the rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct.” General James Longstreet, Rains’ superior officer, forbade the further use of gunpowder in this manner. He condemned the mines as not a “proper or effective method of war.” Longstreet’s view did not win out. Rains was put in charge of a broad program that would make use of torpedoes, mines, and similar gunpowder devices.

The urgent military situation spurred Southerners to the resourcefulness of the desperate. “Many an ingenious mind turned its attention to . . . inventing some machine infernale,” a contemporary observer noted. The Confederate war department, like its northern counterpart, was plagued by proposals, particularly after the government offered a reward for any ship sunk or Union facility ruined. Inventors envisioned torpedo boats powered by rockets, diving apparatus for attaching explosives to ships, balloons for dropping bombs on enemy targets. A man named R. O. Davidson proposed a “Bird of Art.” This was “a machine for aerial locomotion by man” carrying a 50-pound load of exploding shells. A thousand of the birds, he was sure, would put an immediate end to the war. He called on every southern patriot to send him a dollar so that he could start building them.

Gabriel Rains was more practical. He focused on land mines and on mechanically operated floating torpedoes, which were touched off by contact with a ship’s hull. The fulminate that Reverend Forsyth had used to ignite his fowling piece offered an ideal substance to incorporate into a torpedo fuse. A hard knock would set off the primer, which would transmit flame to the main powder charge.

Rains countered arguments that this method of warfare was ignoble by answering that it was justified in “defense against an army of Abolitionists, invading our country.” His confidence in the technique was as boundless as his hatred of Yankees. “No soldier will march over mined land,” he asserted. A corps of sappers armed with mines “could stop an army.”

The justification of torpedoes resulted in some fine distinctions. “It is admissible to plant shells in a parapet to repel assault, or in a road to check pursuit,” Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph concluded. “It is not admissible to plant shells merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.”

Among those with mixed feelings was Confederate Lieutenant Isaac M. Brown. He had helped set up the defenses of a makeshift shipyard on the Yazoo River in Mississippi. In December of 1862, his mines blew up the U.S. ironclad Cairo, the first ship sunk in combat by an electrically detonated torpedo. Brown said he felt “much as a schoolboy . . . whose practical joke has taken a more serious shape than he expected.”

The most famous incident of torpedo warfare took place at Mobile Bay on August 4, 1864. Though a native of Tennessee, 63-year-old Admiral David Farragut had remained loyal to the Union. His actions in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Mississippi had contributed to the capture of New Orleans and Vicksburg. The tightening naval noose had reduced the ports available to southern blockade runners to a handful. Farragut was determined to erase Mobile from the list.

The rebels had floated numerous torpedoes in the harbor mouth, leaving a channel protected by the guns of Fort Morgan. Farragut directed a flotilla of four iron-clad monitors and fourteen wooden warships up the channel, led by the armored Tecumseh. He loathed the hidden weapons as unworthy of a “chivalrous nation.” As he watched from the rigging of his flagship, the Tecumseh steered out of the channel and exploded a torpedo. Its propeller rose from the water still turning and in two minutes the ship had disappeared, taking 120 men from a crew of 141 to the bottom. More torpedoes were spotted in front of the squadron. Indeed, the ships’ crews could hear detonators snapping against their hulls. The admiral had already decided to press ahead, forcing as many ships through as he could. “Damn the torpedoes!” he shouted. “Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!”

The Union forces continued on and captured the fort that dominated the mouth of the bay. The city of Mobile held out, but its usefulness as a port had ended.

Post War German Submarine Legacy

In the fall of 1945, the victorious Allies faced a series of issues. The first was the newly developed atomic bomb and what it portended for future wars, and specifically if in time atomic power could not only be harnessed to propel submarines, but to deliver atomic weapons from them. The second was the growing tension between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, which would soon become an undeclared “cold war,” and the role that submarines would play in this. Another issue was the next steps in the development of the submarine.

The United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union possessed fleets of submarines that had just helped them win the world war. Other powers also possessed submarines, though not to the same extent. Yet all of these submarines were, while suited for the undersea war just fought, not ideal for any future conflict. Wartime experience had shown that the next generation of submarines had to be faster, quieter, spend less time exposed and vulnerable on the surface, and be capable of diving deeper than subs had hitherto gone. Consideration also needed to be given to the new types of weapons, particularly rockets and missiles, and how they could be adapted to submarines. In addition, a new oceanic strategic frontier, the Arctic, had opened during the war, and future conflicts might well require submarines that could extensively navigate and fight beneath the ice.

For some of the winning powers, particularly the United States, there was also a necessary reduction in force to be weighed, as hundreds of boats were no longer needed and wartime reservists, volunteers, and draftees were returning to civilian life. There was also the matter of the large numbers of captured German U-boats and Japanese submarines, including hundreds of incomplete Midgets and Kaiten, and how to assess their technologies effectively while also quickly demilitarizing the former Axis powers. One technology that the United States wished to assess was the snorkel as adapted by the U-Bootwaffe, as well as superior German hydrophones, specialized anti-sonar rubber coatings for U-boat hulls, and an alternate method of powering a submarine, the Walter engine.

The Walter, named for its inventor, Hellmuth Walter (1900–80), was an air independent system for propulsion (AIP). While earlier inventors such as Payerne, Monturiol, and others had worked with a variety of AIP systems, Walter’s early work with marine engines suggested that an oxygen-rich fuel would negate the need for an external air supply or air from tanks. The source Walter settled on was hydrogen peroxide, which with the right catalyst (permanganate of lime) spontaneously combusted to release oxygen and high-temperature, high-pressure steam. Walter patented his research in 1925, and later, in 1940, used it to develop an experimental submarine. That craft, the V-80, was a 76-ton, four-man submarine capable of reaching 28 knots submerged.

From these beginnings, Walter’s propulsion system was integrated into larger U-boats, Type XVII craft. Three of these boats, U-1405, U-1406, and U-1407, were completed by the war’s end, with two others still under construction. The Type XVIIs also featured a more hydrodynamic hull form to reduce drag and increase speed, and in trials they reached 22–23 knots while submerged. Another advanced U-boat class, the Type XXI, also a streamlined, hydrodynamic craft, had three times the battery capacity of a Type VII, and was capable of running completely submerged for two to three days before recharging, which was done submerged by extending the snorkel and running the diesels for about five hours. These “elektroboote” represented yet another innovative German design that the war’s end had prevented the Nazis from deploying in large numbers – only two went on combat patrol. The advanced U-boats, however, played a role in determining the submarine designs of the future for the victors of the war.

The captured boats

While their crews scuttled a number of U-boats at the end of the war, a large number of boats, some of them not yet completed and still in the yards, were surrendered to the Allies. In all, some 154 U-boats made their way into Allied hands. Several were studied carefully, while others were assembled and sunk during Operation Deadlight between late 1945 and early 1946. In all, the British scuttled 121 U-boats off Lisahally, Northern Ireland, the last being U-3514, sunk by gunfire and an experimental antisubmarine weapon in Loch Ryan on February 12, 1946. Others were sunk later, such as U-1105, a modified Type VIIC boat covered with a rubber skin to foil Allied sonar. After transfer to the United States and testing in Chesapeake Bay, the US Navy used a depth charge to sink U-1105 off Piney Point, Maryland, in September 1949. The United States also examined a variety of captured Japanese craft, including four I-boats, among them the giant seaplane-carrying submarines I-400 and I-401, all scuttled off the coast of Hawaii in the spring and summer of 1946. A handful of Midgets and Kaiten were also examined, and a few were saved as war trophies, while hundreds of other smaller Japanese subs including Kairyu and Kaiten were destroyed with demolition charges and scrapped.

Among the U-boats examined by the Allies were eight boats surrendered to the Royal Navy and subjected to tests by the British, notably the Type XXVII boat U-1407, which the Navy commissioned as HMS Meteorite to test its Walter propulsion system, and retained in the fleet until 1949. Based on these trials, the British built two experimental boats, HMS Explorer and HMS Excalibur in 1954 and 1955. The United States took two surrendered U-boats, the Type XXI boats U-2513 and U-3008, commissioned them with American crews, and tested them in 1946–48 to learn more about the secrets behind their fast speeds. The effort was high profile; in December 1947, President Harry Truman visited U-2513 at Key West, Florida, becoming the second American President (Theodore Roosevelt was the first) to ride on a submarine.

When the tests were completed, the boats were scuttled, U-2513 by rockets off Key West, Florida, in September 1951 and U-3008 off Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, in 1954. It was subsequently raised and sold for scrap in 1956. The result of the American tests of the German U-boats was the Greater Underwater Propulsion Project, or GUPPY. While the GUPPY project and its British counterpart were still on the drawing board, however, the US focused its attention on the question of the atomic bomb and the submarine.

The Royal Navy, in addition to building its own two versions of the Type XXVII U-boat, also launched a streamlining program of its large wartime S- and T-class submarines in the 1940s and 1950s. Two new classes of diesel-electric boats were designed that would gradually replace the warhorse S- and T-boats. The first was the Porpoise class of 1955, and the second was the Oberon class of 1959. Britain launched eight Porpoises between 1956 and 1959, when the Oberons replaced them, and launched 27 of the latter for service in the navies of the UK, Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Chile. Modeled after the Type XXI, the Porpoise boats were 290ft long, displaced 2,080 tons, and were powered by two Admiralty standard range 16-cylinder diesel generator sets (with snorkel) and 5,000hp electric motors capable of reaching 12 knots on the surface and 17 knots submerged. With all-welded construction and improved steel for the hull, the Porpoises could dive deeper, had a patrol endurance of 9,000 nautical miles, and were also fitted with an oxygen replenishment system with carbon dioxide and hydrogen scrubbers to enable them to stay submerged for days – and up to six weeks with their snorkel deployed. The first Oberons, launched between 1959 and 1964, were basically improved versions of the Porpoise, with tougher steel hulls for deeper diving, better detection equipment, and the use of fiberglass – a first in British subs – in their streamlined superstructures. Additional boats built after 1964 included those for foreign states, and a number remained in service through 1988.

The American experience followed that of the British, focusing on greater speed for submarines both on the surface and submerged – and the necessary changes to both hull form and propulsion systems to increase speed. The wartime Balao and late-war Tench classes had served well, but were too slow and had insufficient range when submerged for the postwar mission of the US Navy, which was increasingly seen as a likely confrontation with the Soviet Union, either through the Cold War or a scenario where the “cold” war turned into a hot one. The Soviets had captured a number of advanced U-boats, were assessing the Type XXI boats and Walter engines, and their prewar build-up of a submarine force suggested a postwar program to build advanced submarines in large numbers was inevitable. This posed a threat that the United States was ill-prepared to deal with, especially if large numbers of Soviet submarines found a way to make a transpolar approach under the Arctic ice, or they poured faster, less exposed boats in large numbers into the North Atlantic and North Pacific from submarine bases.

Greater Underwater Propulsion Project (GUPPY)

The Greater Underwater Propulsion Project (GUPPY) to modify the submarine fleet was inaugurated to start to meet the challenge, while naval designers also determined the form of the next generation of American submarines. Two Balao class boats, USS Odax and USS Pomodon, were the first “Guppy” boats, and their conversion, completed by 1947, involved removing anything that created flow resistance on the hull, including the deck gun and the wooden deck, enclosing the conning-tower and bridge in a streamlined “sail” (known as a “fin” to the British), smoothing the lines of the bow, folding in the bow planes, and also increasing battery capacity for greater underwater endurance. The removal of the boats’ auxiliary diesel engine and generator, and the ammunition magazine for the deck gun, and the reorganization of some compartments provided the necessary room.

While there were “bugs” to work out, the first Guppies’ flow resistance had been cut by 50 percent. Later Guppy II modifications added a retractable snorkel, new higher-capacity batteries, additional air-conditioning to handle increased heat in the boats, and new sonars; in the 1960s, the Guppy III program cut older boats in half and added a 15ft section housing then modern electronic and fire-control systems that increased their length to 327ft and surface displacement to 1,731 tons. Guppy III modifications also added a larger fiberglass sail and three domes for PUFFS (BQG-4) passive ranging sonar. In all, 55 submarines underwent Guppy conversion, four of them for transfer to Italy and the Netherlands. In addition, 19 other boats underwent a lesser modification as “fleet snorkel conversions,” while other boats were modified and converted to a range of different categories – cargo (SSA), guided-missile (SGA), hunter-killer (SSK), transports (SSP), radar pickets (SSR), targets (SST), and miscellaneous auxiliaries (AGSS). In this fashion, the US Navy retained a number of its wartime boats well into the 1960s and early 1970s. It decommissioned its last wartime-built submarine, the Guppy II-converted USS Tiru, on July 1, 1975.

While US Guppies were transferred to some powers, others, including France, pursued their own fast designs. The French Navy received three U-boats at the end of World War II, including a Type XXI and a Type XXIII. The Type XXI, U-2518, was recommissioned as Roland Morillot in 1951 and served until 1967. Working with what they had learned from operating Morillot, the French then designed the Narval class, and launched six of these fast diesel-electric boats between 1957 and 1960. The Narvals continued to serve into the 1980s, and made a series of noteworthy missions to demonstrate submerged endurance and under-ice Arctic incursions to 72 degrees north.

The Soviet Union also pursued faster submarines, drawing on the design of captured U-boats. Six Type XXI boats transferred to the Soviets after the war were recommissioned, along with four Type VII U-boats, to serve in the Soviet Navy. Soviet designs followed the diesel-electric model with Project 611 (NATO codename Zulu) boats. Based again on the lessons learnt from the Type XXI, the Zulus were 295ft-long, 1,875-ton, streamlined, fast boats with increased battery-power that gave them speeds of 16 knots submerged and 18 knots on the surface. Between 1952 and 1957, the Soviets placed 26 Zulus in service, and in 1956, modified six of them to fire a single R-11 (NATO codename SCUD) missile, making these the world’s first ballistic missile submarines. The next diesel-electric Soviet submarine class, the 1958 Project 629 (NATO codename Golf), introduced larger, 2,794-ton boats with inbuilt missile silos, but at that time the Soviet Union was pursuing another trend – the nuclear-powered submarine.

The German Submarine U-864

U-864 was a German submarine active during World War II. U-864 was a Type IX U-boat would be part of the Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine.

Type IXD2 submarines, of which U-864 is one, are much larger than the original Type IX submarines. This particular model had a displacement of around 1610 tons at the surface and 1799 tons under water. This submarine had a length of 287 feet, a hull length of 224 feet, a height of 33 feet, a draught of 17 feet and a beam of 24 feet. It was equipped with a two MAN M (V 40/46 supercharged four stroke, nine cylinder diesel engine along with two MWMRS34.5S six cylinder four stroke diesel engine for cruising. both these engines together produce a power of 9000 metric hp while at the surface. For underwater movement, the U-864 had two Siemens-Schuckert 2 GU 345/34 double acting electric motors, which produced a total of 1000 hp. She had two 6 feet propellers and two shafts, which allowed her to plunge into depths of about 660 feet.

The submarine had a speed of 20.8 knots at the surface and a speed of 6.9 knots when submerged. She could travel for 121 nautical miles at the speed of 2 knots when she was underwater. However, at the surface she could travel at 12750 miles at the speed of 10 knots. U-864 had tubes for six torpedoes. Four of these were at the bow and the remaining two were at the stern. She carried twenty-four torpedoes, a 10.5 cm SK C/32 naval gun with 150 rounds, and a 3.7 cm naval gun with 2575 rounds and also 2 cm anti-plane guns with 8100 rounds. The boat had a crew capacity of fifty-five.

U-864 was commanded by Korvettenkapitän Ralf-Reimar Wolfram. During her training period she served with the 4th U-boat flotilla. After October 31st 1944, she was sent to serve under the 33rd U-boat flotilla.

The U-boat’s final mission was to transport equipment to Japan. This mission was codenamed Operation Caesar. She was carrying 61 tons of mercury in steel flasks. Theses flasks were stored in the keel. Japan had bought nearly 1400 tons of mercury from the Italians between 1942 and 1943. This mercury was used to create explosives, mainly as primers. This is why this mission was made top priority.

At that time, there were some rumors that U-864 could be carrying uranium oxide like her sister U-boat, U-234. U-234 had surrendered to the US Navy on May 15th 1945. However, Det Norske Veritas (DNV) which is a risk assessment company founded in Norway arrived at the conclusion that there was no uranium oxide on board the U-864 when she had departed the port at Bergen. This information was further corroborated when the Norwegian Coastal Administration investigated the submarine. According to the cargo list, the U boat was carrying the designs and plans for a German jet fighter and various other supplies for Japan to use. Her passenger list showed Tadao Yamoto, the Japanese torpedo expert, and Toshio Nakai the Japanese fuel expert were on board along with Messerschmitt engineers Riclef Schomerus and Rolf von Chlingensperg.

Operation Caesar was supposedly a secret mission by the Germans to supply their ally, Japan with some of their advanced technology so that Japan could make a comeback in the war. This was a complete failure due to the engagement of the only known submerged submarine war in history. Never before, or after, had a submerged submarine been able to attack and destroy another one. Most submarine attacks were made on ships and at the most on submarines that were at the surface.

U-864 arrived at Horten in Norway on December 9th 1944, four days after she left the port at Kiel. Before leaving Kiel, she was fitted with a snorkel mast. All Schnorkel trainings and trials were conducted at Horten. This is why U-864 had to stop there before proceeding to Bergen. A snorkel mast was essential and the problem would have to be fixed before she began her mission to Japan.

On the way to Bergen, the U boat was grounded and had to head to Farsund for repairs. This delayed her journey to Bergen. She finally reached Bergen on January 5th 1945. While U-864 was moored at the harbor along with the other U boats, there was an attack on the harbor by one Mosquito bomber and thirty-two Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers. A Tallboy bomb managed to penetrate the roof of a bunker causing major damage on the inside and left one of the pens for the boats unusable for the rest of the war. U-864 suffered from some minor damage during the attack.

Once the repairs were completed on the U-864, she underwent a few trial runs at Bergen. The British submarine, the HMS Venturer was out on her eleventh patrol from the base at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. She was sent along the coast from Lerwick to Fedje, which is just north of Bergen. It was during this mission that the British code breakers from Bletchley Park intercepted the communication between Germany and Tokyo concerning U-864’s mission to Japan. Once the British realized that this submarine was on its way to give supplies to Japan, they decided that they had to intercept it at any cost. Hence, the HMS Venturer was sent to intercept the U boat.

On February 6th U-864 had passed through Fedje without being detected. However, luck wasn’t on her side. Just as she crossed Fedje, one of her engines misfired. So she was ordered back to Bergen for repairs before she continued with her mission. An order stated that she would be provided with a new escort of February 10th. U-864 turned around and made her way back to Bergen. However, on February 9th, before she could make it back to Bergen, Venturer had heard the sound of the engine and spotted her periscope. The commander of the Venturer had decided not to use ASDIC since it would reveal his presence.

Neither crew had been trained for a situation like this. The commander of the Venturer waited nearly forty-five minutes before asking his men to get to their stations in a hope that U-864 would rise to the surface. Once the crew of U-864 realized that they were being chased by a British submarine, they started using zigzag maneuvers to try to evade them. Evading the British submarine was the only thing they could do because their escort was yet to arrive and would not arrive anytime soon. While the Venturer had only eight torpedoes, the U-864 has twenty-two but since she was busy trying to evade the British submarine she didn’t initiate the attack.  After three hours of being chased the Venturer, the crew heard the sounds of torpedoes being launched. U-864 was already submerged but dived deeper once she realized that torpedoes were being launched. She managed to avoid three of the torpedoes but she unwittingly steered directly into the path of the fourth one while trying to escape the third torpedo. In doing so, she exploded into two parts and sank to the bottom, crew and all. The torpedo ripped through the captain’s bridge and conning tower, but the remaining parts of the submarine are intact. She came to rest on the seabed, 500 feet from the surface and 2.3 miles away from Fedje. It was Harry Plummer who fired those torpedoes. He was later interviewed and he recounts his experience of that fatal day, “It was such a relief that you got rid of… And the next minute I realized it was another submarine and more submariners were killed. We realized it was nothing to be happy about.”

Beyond this, nobody knows what other secrets the U-864 holds. With its toxic cargo, the U-864 has found a permanent tomb underwater for the 73 sailors on board. These mercury flasks prevent anybody from knowing what other top-secret cargo the U boat was carrying.

Many historians believe that Operation Caesar was Hitler’s last desperate attempt in trying to reverse the war. This is why there was such an interest in finding the cargo of the submarine, U-864. If this mission had turned out successful then the war might have had a very different ending or at the very least, lasted longer than it did. The British were extremely lucky to have managed to destroy one of the operations that might have changed the course of the war.

The wreck of the U-864 was found by a group of fishermen who then notified the Royal Norwegian Navy. The KNM Tyr, a minesweeper found the wreck in March 2003.  The exploded sections of the submarine were found scattered over the area.  An operated underwater that could be controlled remotely was used to locate these pieces in 2005. The mercury stored in flasks in this submarine has eroded and the mercury is slowing leaking into the environment. This was contaminating the sea flora and fauna. As many as 1857 steel flasks were discovered in the keel of the submarine. This discharge of mercury could lead to a possible mercury-poisoning situation in the coastal towns surrounding the wreckage. Nearly 4 kilograms of mercury gets released into the water surrounding the wreck every year. This mercury ends up in the plants and fish that live in the waters. There are high levels of this mercury in the crab, torsk and cod around the wreck. Initial studies showed that the mercury levels in the silt surrounding the wreck were at such high levels that if they were absorbed by the fish it could easily affect humans. The Norwegian government has banned all fishing and boating near the wreck. Using robotic vehicles, one of the steel flasks from the wreck was recovered and studied by several environmentalists. The flasks were originally 5 mm thick but because of continuous water erosion and corrosion, they have become just 1 mm in thickness.

The presence of the mercury bottles and torpedoes on board the U-864 make it difficult to attempt the lifting of the submarine. It would be extremely dangerous to attempt to lift the wreck. The Norwegian Coastal Administration, after three years of study has proposed that the wreck be given an underwater burial. They suggested that the submarine, or what remains of it, be buried nearly 40 feet below the seabed over which there will be a layer of concrete or gravel. The concrete and gravel is to prevent the erosion of the sand by the water. This is the only possible long-term solution to this problem of environmental pollution. This method has been used successfully in various other mercury-contaminated places. However, the locals aren’t happy with the burial of the wreck. They worry that the burial and concrete layer may not be foolproof and that the mercury will still leak.

On November 11th 2008, the Norwegian Coastal Administration decided to salvage the submarine along with its cargo. They gave out the contract for the salvage to Mammoet Salvage BV. This company was known for the salvage of Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine in 2001. This company proposed to raise the wreck without using humans. They devised a safe and innovative way that involved the use of deep-sea robots to raise the wreck. This method would satisfy all the environmental restrictions and requirements put forth. The mission would a fully remote controlled operation that would remove the source of the pollution that is the mercury without any human coming in contact with the mercury. The Norwegian government approved of the proposal put forth by Mammoet on January 29th 2009 and the salvage process was supposed to begin in 2010. This salvage was supposed to cost approximately one billion kroner. However, the operation was put on hold because the government wanted more studies performed.

World War 2: A Submerged Submarine Sank Another Submerged Submarine


Naval Aviation in the Korean War II

In two days of very hard fighting, Marines on the ground teamed with Marines in the air to drive the North Korean forces from Obong-ni ridge and across the Nakton River thereby eliminating the dangerous salient. This did not end the fighting along the Pusan Perimeter as the In Min Gun desperately tried to drive American and South Korean forces off the peninsula before reaching their culminating point. But U.S. Army and ROK forces on the ground and Navy, Air Force, and Australian planes in the air would undertake the subsequent fighting at Pusan without their Marine component. In the first week of September, Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade loaded on amphibious shipping and joined their fellow units of the 1st Marine Division then arriving from the United States. Their destination would be the port city of Inchon where they would conduct a remarkable amphibious landing, resulting in a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of war.

Operation Chromite, the amphibious landing at Inchon and subsequent capture of Kimpo airfield and the capital city of Seoul, began on 15 September 1950 with the Marine landing force securing Wolmi-do Island under fire. Of course, the planning and preparation had begun well before that date including an extensive effort by General MacArthur to persuade civilian and military leaders in Washington of the efficacy of his plan. In the minds of many high-ranking leaders, MacArthur’s concept was not only bold, but also highly risky. The geography and hydrography of that area made the approaches treacherous, with tides averaging twenty-three feet and a strong tidal current that further complicated navigation. In the Supreme Commander’s view, all these difficulties would cause his enemy to discount the possibility of a landing at Inchon and thereby ensure the element of surprise. In MacArthur’s mind, catching the NKPA unaware and unprepared would more than make up for the physical and tactical problems of landing at Inchon. Ultimately, MacArthur got his way as well as the forces he believed he needed to conduct the operation. These included the 1st Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division, and the largest assemblage of naval air power since the end of World War II. The Fifth Air Force provided a supporting role by neutralizing North Korean airfields, cutting railroads and bridges, conducting reconnaissance, and providing tactical air support to Eighth Army at the Pusan Perimeter.

During the transit from Japan and the Pusan Perimeter to Inchon, naval aircraft operating from Sicily, Badoeng Strait, Valley Forge, Philippine Sea, and HMS Triumph lashed out at targets in the objective area as well as other locations along the coast to diminish enemy capability and keep them guessing as to the actual landing site. Additionally, aircraft flying off Valley Forge flew regular photoreconnaissance missions, providing current intelligence and updated targeting information. As the Amphibious Task Force moved toward the objective area on 14 September (D-1), carrier aircraft attacked the landing sites, followed by surface fires from supporting cruisers and destroyers. The carrier planes alternated with surface guns throughout the day, focusing much of their fires on Wolmi-do Island where the Marines would make their initial landing. As the assault force made its way to Green Beach on Wolmi-do in the early hours of 15 September, twenty-eight Marine Corsairs covered the final run-in as four destroyers continued to provide surface gunfire support.

The Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, captured Wolmi-do Island by 0800 in the morning on D-day, and turned toward So Wolmi-do (a small island attached by causeway to Wolmi-do) which they captured by late morning. On receiving a message that the beachhead had been secured, MacArthur turned to Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, Commander of the Amphibious Task Force, and said: “Please send this message to the fleet: ‘The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning.’” In accomplishing this first phase of the operation, the Marines suffered only seventeen casualties, none of which proved fatal. They now prepared for a potential counterattack across the causeway from Inchon and waited for the tide to rise for the next phase of the complex operation. During this time, Skyraiders from Task Force 77 continued to isolate the battlefield by interdicting enemy movement and attacking various targets. Carrier-based aircraft also concentrated fire on the next landing sites including Beach Red, north of Wolmi-do Island in Inchon proper, and Beach Blue, south of Wolmi-do in slightly more open country. The task force commander set H-hour for 1750 at which time the First and Second battalions of the Fifth Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Murray assaulted Red Beach and the First Marines under legendary Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller assaulted Blue Beach. By the end of the day, the Navy had landed 13,000 troops along with their weapons and equipment, and the landing force had secured all objectives. The cost in blood for the first day of fighting amounted to 21 killed and 174 wounded. The uniform success of this D-day operation owed much to the professionalism and courage of the Marines of the landing force, of course. Yet the importance of overwhelming close air support provided by Navy and Marine carrier aircraft on this day and in subsequent fighting ashore cannot be overstated. On D-day alone, these pilots flew 344 sorties at the loss of two aircraft. The carriers would maintain that high-intensity level throughout the two weeks of the Inchon-Seoul operation.

On 16 September, the Marines continued the attack to capture Kimpo airfield while the 7th Infantry Division landed in trace (i.e., behind the 1st Marine Division, the initial assault force) and moved south toward Suwon to recapture its airfield and prepare for a linkup with the Eighth Army upon its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter. Much of this fighting by Eighth Army and X Corps (the parent command of the Marines and Army units conducting the Inchon-Seoul operation) proved to be very fierce. By 20 September, the Marines began their assault on Seoul and one week later secured the city. On 29 September 1950, MacArthur returned Seoul to Syngman Rhee and restored civil government to the Republic of Korea. As Walker’s Eighth Army attacked out of the Pusan Perimeter, it met desperate resistance initially, “but with supplies gone, caught between pincers, and without retreat routes available, he [the enemy] gave way at an accelerated rate.” The collapse of the In Min Gun went from a precipitate withdrawal to complete disintegration in which Kim Il-sung’s experienced and hardened troops abandoned their arms and equipment while surrendering in droves. “Within a month, the total of Red captives rose to 130,000.”

In late September, MacArthur received amplifying instructions directing the destruction of remaining North Korean units, including operations north of the 38th parallel. By 20 October, Eighth Army initiated an attack on the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, which quickly fell, while X Corps landed at Wonsan on the east coast of Korea. Over 3,000 expertly laid magnetic and contact mines delayed the landing, and it ultimately required a concerted effort by naval aircraft, helicopters, and surface minesweepers to clear Wonsan Harbor and land the Marines. The NKPA commanders had clearly learned a hard lesson from the Inchon operation, and thereafter mined all the major harbors they could access. By the time the Wonsan landing occurred, ROK Army units had cleared the area of light In Min Gun resistance, and the Marines went ashore unopposed. Subsequently, X Corps landed U.S. 7th Infantry further north at Iwon and an ROK force at Tanchon. Despite the delay at Wonsan, the drive to the Yalu had begun.

For the march into North Korea, MacArthur’s Far East Command divided air support between Fifth Air Force, which supported Eighth Army moving north from Pyongyang on the west side of the peninsula, and Task Force 77 supporting X Corps to the east. Initially, Task Force 77 controlled all air activity in the Wonsan area, but that changed when Air Force leaders argued that the arrangement would lessen coordination of Allied tactical air in Korea. As a result, MacArthur placed 1st Marine Air Wing under control of Fifth Air Force although it remained primarily in support of X Corps. Doctrinal differences between Air Force procedures and those of the Navy and Marine Corps created problems that became apparent early in the war and were never fully reconciled. Yet this command arrangement for aviation units remained in place through the end of the war. Despite ongoing problems and general dissatisfaction among Navy and Marine Corps commanders, the relationship worked, as evidenced by subsequent combat actions in both North and South Korea. For example, during the fighting around the Chosin reservoir and subsequent march to the sea in December 1950, after the Chinese Communists entered the war, ground units of the 1st Marine Division were covered by one of the heaviest concentrations of aircraft of the whole war, consisting exclusively of carrier-based planes of the Marine Corps and Navy.

Clearly, close air support proved to be among the most important missions for both carrier air power and the fighting units on the ground; and this remained true throughout the Korean War. Yet naval aviation provided numerous other functions that contributed substantially to American’s military effort during the conflict. Among the more important of these were interdiction missions, armed reconnaissance, and Air Group strikes. The latter involved scheduled attacks consisting of thirty to fifty aircraft against fixed objectives such as bridges, dams, or industrial areas. In these strike packages, the Corsairs and Skyraiders typically carried heavy ordnance loads while Panther jets provided air cover and suppressed ground fire with rockets and 20-mm gunfire. Air Group strikes proved particularly significant early in the war before American air power had destroyed most high-value targets.

The interdiction missions involved strikes to disrupt the flow of war material from enemy supply bases to their front lines. Once the Chinese entered the war in late 1950, this became a particularly lucrative, though difficult, area for exploitation. Since the U.S. Navy controlled the seas and dominated major ports such as Wonsan, Hungnam, and Chongjin, Communist leaders had to rely on railroads and the primitive road system for re-supply. This resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between the planes of Task Force 77 and their enemy on the ground who frustrated the aviators by hiding trains within tunnels, moving primarily at night, and emplacing automatic weapons at key positions to protect locomotives and major staging areas. As the war progressed, these missions became increasingly dangerous for the planes and pilots of Task Force 77. Yet the interdiction sorties had a major impact on deliveries at the front, particularly ammunition of all types, which Mao Zedong’s army used in great quantities. The deep interdiction mission also focused against troop concentrations and key transportation centers twenty to forty miles behind the front, especially after the Chinese entered the war. The most famous interdiction operation of the war occurred during March and April 1951 against two bridges in the Kilchu-Songjin area. This action became known as the Battle of Carlson’s Canyon due to the damage inflicted by a squadron of Skyraiders commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harold G. “Swede” Carlson flying off USS Princeton.

The Battle of Carlson’s Canyon involved a thirty-day sequence of bridge bombing, bombing the efforts to repair the bridge, and confronting clever efforts to bypass the bridge. Not only did this prove frustrating, but also these and other targeted bridges became great anti-aircraft traps for the pilots of Task Force 77. The Battle for Carlson’s Canyon became the real-life model for James A. Michener’s novel The Bridges at Toko-ri and subsequent movie of the same name. In his role as correspondent, Michener spent several weeks on board Essex and Valley Forge, becoming familiar with the people and missions of their Air Groups, whom he also used as models for his fictionalized version of the naval air war in Korea. Carlson’s squadron of Skyraiders later succeeded in destroying the sluice gates of the Hwachon Dam after previous efforts by air and land had failed, earning his unit the nickname “Dambusters.” The complexity of this mission required an unconventional approach and the Princeton’s aviators responded by using aerial torpedoes left over from World War II. If other missions had established the destructive power of naval aviation, the attack on Hwachon Dam demonstrated its flexibility and capacity for innovation.

The armed reconnaissance mission proved particularly valuable in areas that artillery or naval gunfire could not cover, such as mountainous areas of North Korea. Conducted primarily by F9F Panther jets of Task Force 77, these actions focused on the primitive road network. A typical mission consisted of four Panthers (two sections of two planes each) loaded with rockets, bombs, and 20-mm ammunition. After clearing the beach at ten thousand feet, the aircraft would descend and move to their patrol area looking for targets to attack. The lead plane would fly at three hundred feet followed by a second plane at one thousand. The second section consisting of the third and fourth plane would follow at about three thousand feet to provide air cover and assist in navigation. The lead pilot served as a spotter in identifying targets and threats for the second, which conducted the actual attack. This action would occur at a speed of about 250–300 knots, and typically in very rugged terrain. After the attacking plane expended its ordnance, it would rotate with the lead plane, and then the sections would rotate until all aircraft had exhausted their loads.

The military use of helicopters evolved significantly during the course of the Korean War. Initially used for observation and evacuation, innovative leaders quickly devised other important applications such as laying communications wire and telephone cables, night casualty evacuation, search and rescue, covert operations, gunfire spotting, minesweeping, and transporting troops and supplies through vertical envelopment, including ship-to-shore movement. Arrival of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR)-161, operating the larger Sikorsky HRS-1 transport helicopter in the spring of 1951, made possible the first mass helicopter re-supply in history, named Operation Windmill 1, in which 18,848 pounds of gear and seventy-four Marines were moved a distance of some seven miles in twenty-eight flights. Similar evolutions including operations Summit and Bumblebee occurred in the following weeks, helping to establish the helicopter as an important tactical system. Helicopters evacuated nearly ten thousand Marines in the course of the Korean War during which over one thousand flights occurred at night. Although the Navy made use of helicopters in Korea as well, Marines accomplished most of the battlefield innovation with the Army and Air Force essentially uninvolved until the latter part of the war.

After the large-scale Chinese entry into the war in November and December 1950, the battles moved several times into South Korea and then back to the north as each side launched major offensive operations. During this fighting from 1951 through 1953, naval aviation executed numerous and various roles. Planes of Task Force 77 undertook considerable air action in conjunction with the Air Force’s massive interdiction effort known as Operation Strangle and its successor, Operation Saturate. Other functions included, on 25 August 1951, the first ever use of carrier fighters to escort Air Force bombers over hostile territory. This period of the war also marked a time of greater cooperation between the Air Force and naval aviation units in joint targeting and operational planning. Of course, as the war progressed, numerous changes occurred in the nature of the naval air war. Among other things, the ratio of jet aircraft sorties to propeller planes increased significantly. This resulted from adjustments made in aircraft employment as well as introduction of the F2H Banshee jet in the fighter-bomber role. The Banshee could outperform the Panther in both the intercept and ground attack mode, and proved particularly effective against bridges and railroads. It also served as a superb photoreconnaissance aircraft in its F2H-2P variant. Additionally, introduction of the F3D Skyknight night fighter during the war augmented the Panther and Banshee in their fighter-intercept role. Among other advantages, the Skyknight had a sophisticated radar system that could identify enemy aircraft approaching from both front and rear. It proved particularly valuable in escorting Air Force B-29s on nighttime bombing runs. Although not as effective against the MiG-15 as the F-86 Sabre, all three of these Navy fighters could often defeat MiG challengers due to the superior training of the Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

Changes in the concept of carrier employment also occurred in the course of the war from a blue-water replacement for the battleship to that of a more littoral and land-focused platform. This led to the idea of aircraft carriers operating throughout the world in environments where land-based air power may not be available. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personified his evolving view of the utility of the carrier many years later with his famous question during times of crisis, “Where are the carriers?” Of course, carriers themselves underwent significant enhancements beginning with upgrades to Essex-class ships. This led to development of the big deck super carriers including the Forrestal class in 1955 followed by the nuclear-powered Enterprise and Nimitz classes.

A need for carrier-based fighters that could compete with the Communist MiG-15 in air-to-air combat as effectively as the Air Force F-86 Sabre influenced the development of the F-8 Crusader and F-4 Phantom II, both of which performed well against the MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 in Vietnam. Modernization of naval ground attack capability resulted in production of the superb A-4 Skyhawk light attack jet. Further, the need for an all-weather, night strike plane led to production of the A-6 Intruder (along with its electronic warfare variant, the EA-6B Prowler), another weapon system that performed very well in Southeast Asia and subsequently. The tactical maturing of the helicopter during the war had an impact on land combat like few innovations in military history. This constitutes another important area where the experiences and lessons of the Korean War profoundly affected events a few years later in Vietnam. Regrettably, this good use of lessons learned and improvement in warfighting did not extend itself to an understanding of the role of strategy in warfare—and the importance of adequacy in strategy—once the United States committed itself to the conflict in Southeast Asia. Having accepted war without victory in Korea, American leaders twenty years later found it possible to accept defeat for the first time ever in Vietnam. The most important lesson of Korea and of the history of warfare in general is that wars are won by adequate strategy and not tactical or operational excellence alone. This seems to have been completely lost on America’s leaders of the 1960s.

Jutland’s Significance



Jutland had been no Trafalgar, but then it never could have been. The “wooden walls” of Nelson’s three-deckers were nearly indestructible: the Royal Navy won its victories in the “Age of Fighting Sail” by slaughtering enemy crews and then capturing their ships, not demolishing them. In the Age of Fighting Steel, that was no longer true: the ships themselves were now far more vulnerable than their crews, and were almost irreplaceable. The fate of the three British battlecruisers at Jutland proved only too well the validity of Churchill’s analogy of dreadnoughts being “eggshells armed with hammers.”

Nor could Jellicoe place his faith in the measure of his crews’ competence over their adversaries: time and again in the course of the Great War the officers and ratings of the German Navy proved themselves every bit as proficient and courageous as their Royal Navy counterparts. The yawning chasm that separated the fighting skills of the British seamen of 1805 from their French and Spanish opponents did not exist in 1914.

And so Jellicoe fought a very different battle, one meant to maintain the Grand Fleet’s quantitative supremacy over the High Seas Fleet and ensure that the German warships remained locked in the North Sea, utterly impotent, far from the Atlantic shipping lanes that were Great Britain’s lifelines. As Churchill so correctly observed, Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Thus to Jellicoe nothing but the preservation of the battle fleet mattered: all of his strategies, all of his tactics, were drawn up with this overarching requisite in mind.

Like Trafalgar, Jutland’s consequences were not immediately felt, but they possessed a long reach and proved decisive. The myth that Jutland was somehow a German victory, or even just a draw, is simply that—a myth. For all of the bluster and posturing in his official report, Reinhard Scheer could not alter the fundamental fact that when dawn broke on June 1, 1916 the High Seas Fleet was limping back into its home port, while the Grand Fleet was cruising the open waters of the North Sea, ready to renew the battle. No amount of rhetoric or circumlocution could disguise the fact that the High Seas Fleet turned away from the enemy not once but twice within the span of an hour. If any more convincing demonstration of the Grand Fleet’s ascendency was needed, it can be found in the signals each commander sent to his admiralty upon arriving in port: Scheer told Berlin that the High Seas Fleet would require at least two months to repair and refit before it would be able to put to sea; the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe informed London, needed only to refuel before it would be ready to sail again.

In the end, though, when taken in the longest view, Jutland can finally be seen for what it was—one of the decisive battles of the First World War. There is more to winning and losing a battle than simply numbers: victory or defeat cannot be determined by simply counting the killed, wounded, and missing —or in the case of a naval battle, by the number of ships sunk; it would be an exercise in superfluity to recount the major, decisive battles where the victors’ losses exceeded those of the defeated forces. Jutland was decisive not because one fleet failed to destroy the other, but because something else was destroyed: Reinhard Scheer’s faith in the High Seas Fleet’s ability to defeat the Royal Navy. After Jutland, Scheer never again advocated a major fleet action as a strategic option for the Imperial Navy. Having seen first-hand the power of the Grand Fleet, he instinctively understood that the High Seas Fleet simply lacked the strength to cripple the Grand Fleet, and that nothing less would be required if German warships were to ever reach the North Atlantic. Instead, he threw his wholehearted support behind what became the panacea of German naval strategy: unrestricted submarine warfare; so great was his newfound enthusiasm that it carried his commanding officer, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, with it.

Scheer never fully articulated how his change of heart came about, yet the inescapable conclusion is that it was produced by his experience at Jutland. Certainly Scheer was no coward, but something broke within him that May afternoon, for he was never again the fiercely aggressive sailor he had been before the battle. Jutland disabused Scheer and his fellow admirals of any illusions they may have held about a triumphant High Seas Fleet. The decisive effect of the Battle of Jutland was that it drove them to choose the path of risk; in the end by accepting, even embracing, that risk, Germany paid the price in defeat.

After the Battle of Jutland, almost a year passed before the United States joined the Allies in making war on Germany, nearly two and one-half years went by before that cool, brisk November morning when the warships of the High Seas Fleet steamed into internment off the Firth of Forth. And yet, when they did, they were silently confirming that for the Royal Navy, for Great Britain, and for the Allies, the Battle of Jutland had, indeed, been a victory. It had just been a distant victory.