THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller





THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller



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The Millstone


British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War

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Chapter 3




Bigger Guns and Greater Speed






After the initial Japanese surprise attack against the Russians at Port Arthur, a number of subsequent actions had occurred which sent conflicting signals to the Admiralty at a time of great upheaval. Although the war had opened with a Japanese torpedo attack, this weapon, which was purported to render the battleship obsolete, performed poorly in the war. Certainly, the initial attack, delivered in perfect conditions against anchored and unprepared ships, met with some success; yet the damage was soon repaired. A second torpedo attack on Port Arthur in a heavy snowstorm five days later failed completely. Overall, just two per cent. of torpedoes fired at moving ships found their target.[1] Similarly, although enjoying one great success, the use of mines also did not signal the end of the capital ship. On the night of 11/12 April 1904 the Japanese mining-transport Koryo-Maru sowed mines near the mouth of Port Arthur; on the morning of the 13th the Russian flagship Petropavlovsk struck a mine and sank within two minutes. While it was argued that this demonstrated ‘the inability of huge dimensions to save a ship’[2] the proposed new all-big-gun ship would be half as large again as the unfortunate Russian vessel, a fact which led to the counter argument that greater size gave greater protection through heavier armour and better subdivision. Also, unlike torpedoes, mines were an indiscriminate weapon: in fact, it was the opinion of some observers that the Russians had scored an own goal by running over one of their own mines.[3] The one weapon which did emerge as a dominating factor was the 12-inch gun, fired at ranges which would have seemed unthinkable a year before.

               At the outbreak of the war, the Admiralty had two attachés stationed in Tokyo: Captains Ernest Troubridge and Arthur Ricardo. Captain William Pakenham was sent to join them in the hope that two of the officers would be able to observe the anticipated battles while the third remained in Tokyo. The Anglo-Japanese alliance had been signed in 1902 and relations between the two navies were as close as the paternal mentality of the Royal Navy would allow. Many of the Japanese ships had been designed and built in Britain and their performance might, therefore, either lend support to, or denigrate, diverse fashionable theories then current. For various reasons the Japanese would not let Ricardo accompany the fleet and he left the country.[4] Troubridge, however, observed the initial actions before the arrival of Pakenham who was in time to witness the crucial battle of 10 August. By this time Troubridge had formed the impression, incorrectly, that Pakenham had been sent to replace him and he, too, left the country. Ricardo and Troubridge were replaced by Captains Jackson and Hutchinson; ironically the Japanese then relented and allowed two observers to accompany the fleet.

                For Troubridge, the brief opportunity so afforded would be his only chance to witness battleships in action before the Great War; indeed, he would be one of the few officers in the Royal Navy to have had experience of war conditions. He left Japan with two impressions, one strategical and one tactical. Admiral Togo had, unknown to his subordinates, received orders that he was on no account to risk his fleet. Despite the vituperation of his officers and aware of plots to assassinate him, Togo stuck to the spirit of his orders knowing they were for the greater good and confident of the support of his superiors, which was duly received. If the latter had not been forthcoming, Troubridge later admitted, it would be thereafter impossible ever to give an order to retire in the face of the enemy.[5] Tactically, Troubridge was overwhelmingly impressed by the immense importance of long-range firing at a time when it was rumoured that some captains were reluctant to fire guns in practice for fear of damaging paintwork.[6] ‘Not much more than ten years ago’, the 1903 Naval Annual reported, ‘it was not unusual for flag officers to go ashore to get out of the firing, and if the gunnery lieutenant worried himself in the matter, it was looked upon as part of the eccentric behaviour natural to a man cranky on guns. All this has changed now.’[7] But had it? Prize firings were still conducted against a stationary target moored at 1,600 yards. In reply to the objection that prize-firings were not carried out under likely war conditions it was argued that, although the ranges were increasing, the object of prize-firings was, ‘to keep keen the interest of the men in shooting, and to draw out individual talent and aptitude, and that this would not be done if prize-firing was carried out at ranges at which the men could not mark the direction of their shots.’[8] Furthermore, the gunnery practice scores designed to encourage competition were an unreliable guide. As Sumida notes, ‘firing conditions were unrealistically easy’, and the methods used to compute the scores tended to give an over-optimistic impression. The result was effectively to disguise the fact that ‘dreadnought gunnery in particular left much to be desired’.[9]

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                In April 1903 Captain Percy Scott had been selected to command the gunnery school, HMS Excellent at Whale Island, with a remit to introduce a new system of training. Long range firings had been tried experimentally before: Fisher himself had introduced it in 1900, when C-in-C, Mediterranean, as a regular feature of fleet exercises and had achieved ‘very satisfactory’ results at ranges from 5,600 to almost 7,000 yards.[10] This, however, was the exception; ranges varied from station to station at the whim of the C-in-C.[11] The problem remained the lack of a standard system of fire control. In the time-honoured tradition the Admiralty appointed not one but two committees in September 1903 ‘to carry out experiments on the whole problem of long-range firing.’[12] For three months during the winter of 1903-4, the battleships Victorious of the Channel Fleet and Venerable of the Mediterranean Fleet fired off round after round only to come, ultimately, to differing conclusions. Of the Venerable’s firing experiments at Prasa Island it was said:

Hundreds of salvoes of ammunition had been fired and much coal and energy expended to prove what to many was a self-evident fact — i.e. that you could not efficiently fire the powerful and long-range batteries of a modern man-of-war by the old plan of go as you please.[13]

The report of the Mediterranean Committee, delivered on 17 April 1904, differed in its recommendations from that of the Channel Committee but was preferred by the Admiralty. With carefully controlled fire, opening ranges could be as high as 8,000 yards with good prospects of hitting[14] — a start had been made, though there were to be many vicissitudes before long range firing was raised to any form of art.[15]

                Any notion that the results achieved by Venerable were in some way fanciful were soon disabused by the first report from Captain Troubridge in Japan describing the actions of 9 and 25 February. Though written on 28 February the dispatch took three months to reach the Admiralty, when it coincided with the joint Channel-Mediterranean Committee recommendations. On the morning of 9 February the Japanese had opened fire on the Russian ships and forts at a range of 8,000 yards; Troubridge reported that ‘several shells fell in Port Arthur itself at spots not much less than 12,000 yards from the guns which discharged them.’[16] Troubridge was convinced that the deciding factor was the heavy gun, an argument which was implicit in his assertion that, ‘It may be doubted whether any ship of any country has ever practised firing at 8,000 metres and yet at that distance three Russian cruisers were driven into harbour.’[17]

                From the point of view of the forthcoming Committee of Designs, which would be appointed by Fisher in December 1904, the important action was that of 10 August, which was witnessed by Pakenham. His long-delayed report reached the Admiralty in mid-October and contained what was referred to as the ‘momentous paragraph’:

Compared with peace practice, ranges of 10,000 and 12,000 metres sound preposterous, but they are not really so. Firing begins to look possible at 20,000 metres, reasonable at 14,000 metres; close range may be counted at setting in at about 10,000 metres, and at 5,000 metres ships might as well be alongside one another…[18]

Pakenham recorded that the Russians had opened fire at the ‘extraordinary range’ of 18,000 metres and had fallen short by 218 yards. On that day, three huge shells hurtled through the air, shot from moving targets, aimed at moving targets. Any one might prove lethal; two would decide the outcome of the battle. The Japanese flagship Mikasa was hit by a 12-inch projectile at 13,000 yards which, other than for the smooth sea, might have proved fatal; however, two 12-inch shells burst on the bridge and conning tower of the Russian flagship killing the Admiral and causing the ship to sheer out of line as the helmsman fell dead over the wheel. In the subsequent confusion amongst the Russians, the Japanese scored heavily before their adversaries retreated to Port Arthur.

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                Although Fisher had already worked out the broad outlines for his all-big-gun ships the dispatches would be crucial in either adding support to his own theories or lending weight to the arguments of his opponents. As it turned out, the reports proved decisive ‘in converting the Board and, afterwards, in confirming it in the wisdom of the new design.’[19] This was particularly fortuitous, so far as the Board was concerned, as Pakenham had been inadvertently misled as to the actual ranges at which the battle of 10 August was fought. The standard range finder at the time was four and a half feet in length, allowing for accurate readings up to four thousand yards.[20] Due to the limitations of the equipment, in the heat of battle Pakenham was led to overstate the range by some three thousand yards. He then calculated that an additional figure should be added to this already inflated range to allow for the fact that British gunnery was demonstrably superior.[21]

                It was also perhaps just as well that the Dreadnought’s design had been finalized before the decisive battle of Tsushima on 27 May 1905 in which, in misty weather, the Japanese were able to close the range on the inexperienced Russian crews and use their medium calibre weapons to great effect. Also, the supposed ‘wisdom’ of the new British design did not extend to such obvious errors as the poor layout of the main armament and the siting of the tripod mast, vital for fire-control, immediately abaft the forward funnel where it would be seriously affected by smoke and fumes. As Fisher initially advocated the adoption of the 10-inch gun in Dreadnought and clearly was uncertain of the new methods of fire control being introduced (particularly salvo-firing) it has been suggested that he was more concerned with the financial savings to be achieved by using one main calibre ammunition rather than the benefits of long-range gunnery. However, influenced, in all probability, by Captain Reginald Bacon, the leading proponent of all-12-inch armament, Fisher was converted to the 12-inch gun by the time he had assumed the position of First Sea Lord.[22] The truth was that the real lessons of the war were ‘obscured by the utterances of the First Sea Lord … who tended to quote the war as evidence in support of his current ideas and, since these changed rapidly, so did the lessons he read.’[23]

                It has also been argued that a determining factor in the quest for long range shooting was the necessity to counter the threat posed by the torpedo, when fired from surface craft.[24] There is no doubt that Fisher himself appreciated the danger. He advised Selborne in 1902: ‘ Don’t get inside 4,000 yards of the enemy (even though we are suffering from want of accuracy in gunfire due to want of velocity), because, as sure as you do, the torpedo will get in …’[25] But how real was the threat? At that time the torpedo was still an imperfect weapon. The adoption of the gyroscope at the turn of the century was instrumental in allowing for ranges in excess of 800 yards. Even so, by 1904, so far as was known, no nation had ‘any considerable number of torpedoes capable of running much more than 2000 yards. Moreover the speed of existing torpedoes at this range is low, some 20 knots at the most.’ A leading naval journal doubted whether a torpedo could be expected to hit a ship at a range of 2,000 yards, though the probability would increase dramatically if the torpedo was fired at a line of ships. Rumours were current, however, that Whitehead was constructing an experimental 18-inch torpedo at Fiume capable of running 3,300 yards.[26]

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                The next major advance reported in the field of torpedo engineering was the incorporation of a heater to increase the available energy. At trials in Weymouth in December 1906 it was demonstrated ‘that a torpedo fitted with a heater could travel for double the distance at a given speed.’ Rather than apply this gain to the range,however, it was at first utilized to increase the speed, over 2,000 yards, from 26 knots to 33.5 knots (and subsequently 35.3 knots).[27] Within a year, the maximum speed had increased to 38 knots at 2,000 yards. But this gain remained a compromise: to achieve longer range it was necessary to sacrifice speed. Thus, by 1908, a range of 4,000 yards was possible but at a reduced speed of 28 knots.[28] It was only in 1909, five years after Fisher’s arrival as First Sea Lord, that the torpedo became a real, rather than an imagined, threat. The new torpedo invented by Engineer-Lieutenant Hardcastle was then reported to have an effective range of 7,000 yards and a speed of 31 knots.[29]

                It is clear that, when Fisher became First Sea Lord in 1904, the actual threat from the torpedo, when fired from a torpedo boat or destroyer, was exaggerated. Nevertheless, it has to be accepted that the perceived threat did influence the quest for accurate long range gunnery,[30] though only in so far as this related to the visible threat posed by surface craft. As Marder has pointed out, ‘So long as a torpedo craft had to come within a range of a few thousand feet of her prey before she could hope to discharge her torpedo with any reasonable prospect of success, it might be safe to rely on an armament of 3-pounder guns to stop her in time. But when the range of the torpedo rapidly grew to 7,000 yards, and destroyers became larger, it manifestly became necessary to employ a much heavier armament to stop the torpedo craft in time.’[31] From this, it could be argued that it was the increase in size of the delivery vessel (the destroyer) as well as the increase in the range of the torpedo which necessitated accurate long range fire. In any event, long range fire was of no benefit when the delivery vessel was invisible — no size of gun was a defence against a submerged submarine. And it is clear that Fisher was fully alive to the submarine menace.[32] There is, however, one factor, not widely mentioned, which also might have weighed heavily on Fisher and influenced his push for longer ranges. When C-in-C, Mediterranean, Fisher had informed Selborne: ‘Also (I speak from experience) there is nothing more demoralizing than to be fired at without firing back. The Italian Admirals all told me last year they had made excellent practise at 7,000 yards and intended following the French in firing at long ranges …’[33]

                The diverse engagements of the Russo-Japanese war (with the exception of Tsushima) appeared to vindicate those in favour of adopting the 12-inch gun; but, no less, they highlighted the other, and equally controversial, aspect of the proposed Dreadnought design (and more so of the new all-big-gun cruisers) — speed. Not only was additional speed expensive to produce, it was also asserted that ‘speed may be purchased at too great a price by the loss of protection, gun power, or range of action.’[34] Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge had no doubt that those ‘who expected to find in the operations of the 1904 campaign any proof of the value of a superiority in speed will be disappointed.’[35] The attachés on the spot though were convinced that speed was crucial for the purpose of catching the Russians who were always trying to escape. Pakenham had written of the 10 August action that the Japanese were limited to the speed of their slowest unit, a mere 15 knots, (although this was slightly faster than the Russians) and that ‘This prevented Togo from improving his tactical position and allowed the enemy to regain the shelter of Port Arthur when light failed.’[36] There was no need for proselytizing where Fisher was concerned: he had been promoting the values of speed for years.[37] In papers presented by Fisher to the Board in support of the designs for the all-big-gun battleship Dreadnought and its cruiser equivalent Invincible use was again made of the Attachés’ reports. The two main actions in the Russo-Japanese war were utilized to provide examples demonstrating the superior offensive capability provided by extra speed. ‘The Invincible class’, it was confidently but incorrectly asserted, ‘must be regarded as fast battleships rather than armoured cruisers…’[38]

                Argument would continue to rage, over the Dreadnought in particular, shifting from the technical aspects of the new design to the longer term implications involved in starting from scratch with a new weapon, thereby sacrificing the lead that had been gained at such great expense in what were now termed, almost derisively, pre-Dreadnoughts. There is no doubt that the advent of the Dreadnought seriously disrupted German naval plans and that, at that particular moment, Britain was in an unrivalled position to build such a ship.[39] The German design for a mixed-calibre battleship, due to be laid down in 1906, was hastily revised and then cancelled. A further year was lost while the design was completely redrafted for a larger ship;[40] the plans of Admiral Tirpitz lay in ruins. He had ‘believed that he could catch up with Britain and reduce her numerical superiority sufficiently to obtain a political lever against her. But by building the Dreadnought, Fisher had added to the Anglo-German arms race a qualitative dimension which caught Tirpitz unprepared.’[41] Fisher, typically, ventured another reason: ‘The German Admiralty wrestled with the Dreadnought problem for 18 months and did nothing. Why? Because it meant spending 12½ millions sterling on widening and deepening the Kiel Canal and in dredging all their harbours and all the approaches to their harbours, because if they did not do so it would be no use building German Dreadnoughts, because they couldn’t float anywhere in the harbours of Germany!’[42]

                Although the subsequent Nassau class of German battleships, which were laid down in the summer of 1907, featured a uniform main armament of 12 x 28 cm (11.1-inch) guns, they had to be given reciprocating engines, as German engineering lagged behind in the production of a suitable turbine, leaving them two knots slower than Dreadnought. Tirpitz apparently favoured the use of turbines in cruisers only and was backed by his Construction Department; besides, suspicions were aroused within the Imperial Marine Office that the British-designed Parsons’ turbines supplied to Germany (which were all that was currently available) were not as well engineered as those supplied to the British. Even so, to attain the necessary speed which was the rationale of the class, the Germans had but little choice other than to use Parsons’ equipment for their all-big-gun armoured cruisers to be built in response to the Invincible class.[43]

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Fisher placed great faith in his ‘Invincibles’: in the 1905-06 programme three such ships were to be laid down as against only one Dreadnought and, as mentioned, the possibility exists that Fisher’s promotion of Dreadnought was primarily as a means to ensure the building of the all-big-gun cruisers. Fisher informed the First Lord (and anyone else who would care to listen)[44] that, in his opinion, the Invincibles were superior to the Dreadnought;[45] however, as with many of his ideas, these vessels ‘represented a good concept, poorly thought through’.[46] The progress of cruiser design had been rapid in the previous decade. The advent of, first, the Harvey process and then Krupp’s armour in the 1890s allowed the possibility of vastly better protected cruisers with a concomitant addition to their various rôles. The so-called “protected” cruisers of the time depended, in the main, on a protective deck covering the machinery and other vital spaces. As such, they were utilized for commerce protection and scouting for the fleet. The “armoured” cruiser became feasible in 1897 when Krupp’s new process allowed the addition of side armour sufficiently tough to withstand steel 6-inch shell but which did not greatly increase the size and cost of the ship.[47] The first such armoured cruisers, the Cressy class of 1899-1901, were designed to counter a specific French threat. What they were not designed for was to participate in a fleet action where their main armament (9.2-inch) would be insufficient to inflict serious damage against a modern battleship while their armour could not withstand 12-inch gunfire. Nevertheless, the Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, was perhaps carried away with the possibility that, in certain circumstances, up-to-date cruisers could engage battleships. ‘There seems absolutely no reason, under modern conditions,’ he reported, ‘why first-class cruisers should hold aloof if designed and constructed suitably. This has become true largely through improvements in armour and armaments in the last few years. If cruisers are to be built capable of fighting with battleships in fleet actions, they must be given such protection to buoyancy, stability, guns, and crews, as will enable them to come to close quarters with the enemy without running undue risks.’[48] This might conceivably have held true with some of the weaker battleships then being built (for example, the German Kaiser class armed with a main battery of only 4 x 9.4-inch); however the subsequent blurring of functions would result in a fundamental misconception of the rôle of the cruiser in modern warfare.

                Following the six Cressys came the two Duke of Edinburgh class of 1902-03, then four Warrior class of 1903-04, culminating in three Minotaur class of 1904-05. These last were large and expensive ships: 490 feet long, weighing 14,600 tons, mounting 4 x 9.2-inch and 10 x 7.5-inch guns and capable of steaming at 23 knots. One of them, Defence, would be the flagship of the First Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean on the outbreak of war in 1914 under the command of Rear-Admiral Troubridge. These ships cost, on average, £1.4 million apiece. By comparison, the two battleships provided for in the same estimates, Lord Nelson and Agamemnon, although shorter (410 feet), heavier (16,500 tons) and slower (18 knots) were much better protected and more heavily armed yet cost £1.54 million each, not too great an advance on the cost of the cruisers. Speed, Fisher’s watchword, was therefore bought at a high price and not just in monetary terms; these huge cruisers were also extravagant in their manning requirements, needing complements not far less than battleships. By the time the Minotaur class was laid down, early in 1905, the dissipation of the Russian and French threats to commerce looked as if it might all but remove the need for large numbers of armoured cruisers. The identification of Germany, with its limited number of these vessels, as the potential enemy and, therefore, the North Sea as the main battle area thereby focused attention on the requirements of the Fleet in a general action.

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                Recent experience of cruisers in action was provided by the Japanese victory at Tsushima on 27 May 1905. Togo’s fleet comprised four battleships and eight armoured cruisers: after the initial contact and damage to the Russian Baltic Fleet contemporary accounts stirringly refer to the whole of the Japanese armoured cruiser squadron following in the wake of the battle squadron to administer the coup de grâce at short range. It was also known at the Admiralty by the end of 1904 that the Japanese were laying down a pair of fast armoured cruisers carrying 4 x 12-inch guns. Such ships would be capable of performing a number of tasks including reconnaissance, support of smaller ships, hunting down marauding enemy cruisers, and assisting in a fleet action by virtue of their high speed.

                The Minotaur class was simply not powerful enough to accomplish all these tasks; however the proposed replacement, Fisher’s Invincibles, would go too far in redressing the balance: they would be ‘far too large and too costly for the ordinary duties of cruisers’, maintained Lord Brassey who thought it reasonable to conclude, following a recent speech by the First Lord, ‘that the intention is to utilise them as battleships’.[49] The distinction was about to be blurred further. Recent armoured cruisers had developed analogous to battleships: thus the Duke of Edinburgh class contained many of the features of the King Edward VII battleships, while the Minotaur class had its homologue in the Lord Nelson class.[50] The obvious step was for the next class to shadow the Dreadnought. As long ago as 1902 Fisher had worked out designs for a 25 knot armoured cruiser, in conjunction with the Chief Constructor W. H. Gard.[51] By 1904, when he began to wonder if battleships were obsolete, Fisher’s preference for a fast, heavily-armed cruiser (a concept he termed “armed speed”) was so marked that the distinction became non-existent; he referred to the large armoured cruiser as a ‘battleship in disguise’. The First Progress Report of Fisher’s Committee on Designs would go further by maintaining that the proposed ships would be ‘in reality, fast battleships’.[52] Finding a suitable rôle[53] for these hybrid ships would bedevil the Admiralties of various countries for years; in Britain the problem was never satisfactorily solved.[54] As late as 1913, one officer could lament that there existed ‘no official pronouncement on the functions of the battle-cruisers, or even on the cause of their existence’.[55]

In Germany, if the ships did have a purpose it appeared at times to be no more than to counter the very specific threat posed by the British ships. The one proposal to merge the concept of battle cruiser and battleship appears to have fallen foul of the variable over which Fisher had no control — money. An Admiralty project (tentatively labelled “X4”) of December 1905 for a new type of ship seems to have been an attempt by Fisher to have constructed ‘the all-conquering battlecruiser.’ Following his reasoning to its logical conclusion, this massive ship was to have displaced 22,500 tons, with a main armament of ten 12-inch guns and a speed of 25 knots: thus combining the speed of the battle cruiser and the firepower and armour of the battleship. However the Admiralty Committee Report of January 1906 on the fast battleship concept concluded that the purpose of new construction should be to add more gunfire to the Fleet ‘rather than greatly increased speed.’[56] The proposal to build X4 also coincided with the return of the Liberal Government; perhaps recognizing that the money would not be available, the project sank without trace and the Admiralty was forced to build ‘less ambitious’ ships which, due to the financial constraints, were little more than repeats of Dreadnought and Invincible.[57]

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If nothing else, at least Fisher could take comfort from the disruption, which was greater than expected, caused to German shipbuilding by the launch of the new designs. Design work began on the German equivalent of the fast armoured cruiser in August 1906 though the vessel was not laid down till March 1908 and, due to the slower building times in German yards, the ship would not be ready for commissioning trials till September 1910. What emerged then however, in the form of the von der Tann, was a superior fighting ship to the ‘Invincibles’. Worse, when the subsequent Indefatigable class was laid down in Britain under the 1908-09 programme, the mistakes of the Invincible class were repeated, an extraordinary oversight given the three year lapse between classes.[58] The subsequent German class, comprising Moltke and Goeben, represented a great improvement and would have given Germany the lead in this particular design had the building time been faster. Goeben, for example, took exactly three years from the date of her laying down (28 August 1909) till the completion of her trials (28 August 1912). By this time the third generation of British ships, the Lion class, had been completed or were near completion. Britain maintained the quantitative edge, though not, overall, the qualitative in spite of the fact that the latest class featured the excellent 13.5-inch gun.

                The confusion over the rôle of these ships extended to their nomenclature. The 1907 Naval Annual referred to the Invincibles as ‘three armoured cruisers (or battleships)’;[59] by 1908 they had become ‘three armoured cruisers (or cruiser battleships)’;[60] Fisher referred to one in September 1908 as a ‘very fast big-gun battle cruiser’.[61] By 1912 they were universally known as ‘battle cruisers’ and were classed as capital ships, that is, ships capable of lying in the line of battle, a task for which they were never intended[62] despite Fisher’s proclivity. ‘Investigation’, noted one officer in 1913, ‘shows that the battle-cruiser is really a fast battleship and nothing more’.[63] The German designs, aided by savings of weight in machinery, were able to provide a much better system of protection, without sacrificing speed.[64] That the confusion continued unabated is demonstrated by the fact that the Admiralty planned to revert to a 9.2-inch armoured cruiser in the 1908-09 programme, only to cancel the plans when it emerged that the German armoured cruisers would, in all likelihood, be superior to the ‘Invincibles’.

                The plan of naval construction originally formulated by Lord Selborne in 1902 called for the laying down annually of three battleships and four armoured cruisers; however, once the designs of Dreadnought and Invincible had been settled, fiscal considerations and the pre-emptive purchase of two battleships being built in British yards for Chile reduced the 1905-06 programme to one battleship – Dreadnought itself – and the three large armoured cruisers, Invincible, Indomitable and Inflexible,[65] that Fisher really hankered after. In December 1905, just days before the resignation of the Conservative Government, the Board of Admiralty announced a further deviation from the Selborne proposal of 1902 regarding the number of ships to be laid down. ‘At the present time’, Lord Cawdor noted, ‘strategic requirements necessitate an output of four large armoured ships annually, and unless unforeseen contingencies arise, this number will not be exceeded.’ The four large armoured ships at the time (the 1905-06 programme) comprised Dreadnought, which had recently been laid down, and the three Invincible class battle cruisers, due to be laid down early in 1906. Although various economies, outlined by Cawdor, allowed for a significant reduction in the estimates, a word of caution was added: ‘the public cannot rely on this reduction being continued in future years if foreign countries make developments in their shipbuilding programmes which we cannot now foresee, but the programme of shipbuilding we have in view for future years, and have provided for, will meet all the developments of which the resources of foreign countries seem at present capable.’[66]

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                The general election of January 1906 returned a Liberal Government committed to reduce spending on defence; even so, the incoming First Lord, Tweedmouth, provisionally accepted the 1906-07 estimates which had already been prepared and which provided for a further four large armoured vessels. Anticipating the likely demands for economy, the Admiralty prepared their counter argument in The Building Programme of the British Navy (15 February 1906) maintaining that any reduction from Cawdor’s proposed four armoured ships would only lead, inevitably, to ‘a very great increase upon the present programme’ a year or two hence. Undermining this argument though was the continued inability of any other country to lay down a single Dreadnought. Although the new estimates, so generously bequeathed by the Conservatives, were initially approved by Parliament the new Liberal Chancellor, Asquith, continued to press for further cuts, writing to Tweedmouth on 24 May that his demands would be unaffected by anything Fisher could say. Two days later the Sea Lords met at the Admiralty and agreed to drop one of the four armoured vessels. When, therefore, a delegation of 120 MPs of the Reduction of Armaments Committee approached the Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, he was able to inform them that the Sea Lords were not opposed to reductions. In addition, the forthcoming Hague Peace Conference held out the tenuous hope of multilateral arms reductions; believing that a display of moderation would not go unnoticed, the Government persuaded the Admiralty on 12 July to drop a second ship, which, however, could be reinstated if the Conference failed to secure an agreement. Fisher was an amenable player in this cynical exercise, convinced that three ships would be laid down ‘because the Hague Conference will be futile’. On the other hand, the Opposition, the Navy League, and the navalist press all saw matters differently and there was the usual outrage.[67]

                Nevertheless, with a material advantage in the offing and Germany identified as the ‘only potential foe’ the Admiralty had also decided in July on a reorganization leading to an increased concentration in northern waters. The following month, on 18 August, the various Commanders-in-Chief were confidentially informed of the scope of the reductions. At once Admiral Sir Charles Beresford divined the “real reason”: ‘the whole object of the reductions was to save money by avoiding the necessity of increasing the personnel to the number required to reinforce the reserve crews, and by economizing on the maintenance of ships in full commission.’ The result would be, he charged, to leave the Mediterranean Fleet ‘weakened and inadequate’. Furthermore, the reductions below the required tactical strength would gravely interfere with training. Beresford would later complain that, during his tenure in the Mediterranean, ‘proper strategical and tactical exercises became impossible.’[68] His arguments would not prevail. As Fisher was subsequently to write:

Our only probable enemy is Germany. Germany keeps her whole Fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England. We must therefore keep a Fleet twice as powerful concentrated within a few hours of Germany…The Board of Admiralty…have decided to form a new Home Fleet always at home, with its Headquarters at the Nore and its cruising ground the North Sea… The only way to obtain this new “Home Fleet” is by moving six battleships and four armoured cruisers from the Channel, Mediterranean, and Atlantic Fleets (observing that these 3 Fleets are 50 per cent stronger than the present political situation demands), and combining them with the best of the battleships in Reserve....[69]

The Mediterranean Squadron was reduced to six battleships at which strength it would remain until the great debate of 1912.Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]    Parkes, British Battleships, p. 464.

[2]    The Naval Annual 1905, p. 137.

[3]    Earlier, on 11 February, the Russian mining-transport Yenisei had been blown up by one of her own mines, which resulted in the glib epitaph: ‘She had laid 400 and was destroyed by the 401st.’, ibid., pp. 128, 138.

[4]    Philip Towle, “The evaluation of the experience of the Russo-Japanese War”, in Bryan Ranft (ed.),Technical Change and British Naval Policy, 1860-1939, p.66: ‘…possibly because Ricardo was on bad terms with the Japanese or perhaps because the Japanese were worried that foreigners would claim that their victories were won with British help, they refused to allow any attaché except Troubridge to accompany their fleet.’

[5]    Minutes of Court of Inquiry, 22 September 1914, Q. 18, given in E W R Lumby (ed.), Policy and Operations in the Mediterranean 1912-14, pp. 251-2 [hereinafter referred to as Lumby]; see also The Naval Annual 1905, p. 120: ‘Admiral Togo had been expressly ordered by his Government not to risk his battleships unnecessarily, as they could not be replaced during the war.’

[6]    See, for example, P Padfield, Aim Straight, pp. 61-3, p. 74. However, D. K. Brown [Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 155] argues that ‘Stories of practice ammunition being thrown overboard to avoid damage to paint should be treated with caution; even if true, such actions were the exception.’

[7]    The Naval Annual 1903, p. 399.

[8]    The Naval Annual 1904, p. 29, p. 40; see also, Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 46 ff.

[9]    Sumida, “Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology”, The Journal of Military History, 59 (October 1995), p. 622.

[10]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 521.

[11]  Parkes, British Battleships, p. 457.

[12]  Ibid., p. 522; see also, Padfield, op cit., p. 140; Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 48-9.

[13]  Lord Chatfield, quoted in Parkes, British Battleships, p. 458.

[14]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 522.

[15]  See Sumida generally.

[16]  The Naval Annual 1905, p. 119.

[17]  Report by Troubridge, 20 February 1904, quoted in Philip Towle, “The Evaluation of the experience of the Russo-Japanese War”, B Ranft (ed.), op cit., p. 69.

[18]  Report by Pakenham, 11 August 1904, PRO Adm 1/7775.

[19]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. 1, p. 59.

[20]  Sumida, The Pollen Papers, p. 5.

[21]  Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, pp. 180-1.

[22]  Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, p.188; Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 50-1; Marder, Dreadnought, p. 58. Bacon was to become Dreadnought’s first captain.

[23]  D. K. Brown, “The Russo-Japanese War: Technical Lessons as Perceived by the Royal Navy”, in McLean and Preston (eds.), Warship 1996, p. 66.

[24]  For example, Andrew Gordon’s recent The Rules of the Game [p. 10]: ‘The coming-of-age of the torpedo made it necessary for large warships to exploit the long-range potential of their heavy guns in order to engage beyond the reach of the enemy’s flotilla craft…’

[25]  Fisher began: ‘I. We want above all other things increased velocity in our guns … If you don’t get this increased velocity, you don’t get the desired accuracy at 4,000 yards, so then you don’t have margin sufficient to ensure keeping clear of the torpedo zone, which in the case of a stern chase is 3,000 yards without any doubt.’ Fisher to Selborne, 19 July 1902, F.G.D.N., vol. I, pp. 252-3.

[26]  The Naval Annual 1904, p. 337.

[27]  The Naval Annual 1907, p. 12.

[28]  The Naval Annual 1908, pp. 284-6.

[29]  The Naval Annual 1909, pp. 250-1. In comparison, the latest Whitehead, fitted with a super-heater, was reported as being capable of 28 knots over 5000 yards.

[30]  A similar argument applied, for example, to the decision of Rear-Admiral Troubridge not to engage to German battle cruiser Goeben in August 1914: I have previously commented on the various arguments adduced at Troubridge’s Court Martial that ‘all this missed the point, which was not whether, according to a minute study of the technical aspects, Goeben did, or did not, constitute a superior force to the First Cruiser Squadron but whether Troubridge believed that she did, and, in the conditions prevailing on the morning of 7 August 1914, this was quite clearly his belief.’ Miller, Superior Force, p. 294.  See also Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 182: ‘The fear of the torpedo was a major factor in forcing the Navy to longer battle ranges though experience in the First World War showed that the torpedo was much less effective than anticipated. At 6000 yds, the running time would be at least 6 minutes during which the speed or course of the target was only too likely to change.’

[31]  ‘Hence [continued Marder] all dreadnoughts built subsequently to the original Dreadnought were furnished with an anti-torpedo armament of sixteen or more 4-inch or 25-pounder guns. Finally, after some thirty dreadnoughts had been built, the Admiralty came back to the 6-inch battery.’ Marder, F.G.D.N., p. 31.

[32]  For example, when relating the adventures of the battleship Empress of India on manoeuvres: ‘…so self confident of safety and so oblivious of the possibilities of modern warfare that the Admiral is smoking his cigarette, the Captain is calmly seeing his defaulters down on the half-deck, no one caring one iota for what is going on, and suddenly they see a Whitehead torpedo miss their stern by a few feet! And how fired? From a submarine of the ‘pre-Adamite’ period, small, slow, badly fitted, with no periscope at all’. Fisher to Admiral May, 20 April 1904, F.G.D.N., vol. I, pp. 308-9. See also Records, p. 107.

[33]  Fisher to Selborne, 6 October 1901, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 208 [my emphasis].

[34]  The Naval Annual 1906, p. 144.

[35]  The Naval Annual 1905, p. 170.

[36]  Report by Pakenham, PRO Adm 1/7775.

[37]  In December 1900, for example, the First Lord was informed that ‘speed is almost the first desideratum in all types from battleship downward to meet the game that England must play in a naval war.’ Quoted in, Mackay, Fisher, pp. 268-9. Fisher rammed home the point the following month: ‘It is clearly necessary to have the superiority of speed in order to compel your opponent to accept battle, or to enable you to avoid battle and lead him away from his goal till it suits you to fight him.’ Fisher to Selborne, 5 January 1901, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 177.

[38]  “HM Ships Dreadnought and Invincible”, in Lieutenant-Commander P Kemp (ed.), The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, pp. 261-2.

[39]  The shipyards had attained a high degree of efficiency, exemplified by the fact that Dreadnought herself was laid down on 2 October 1905 and was completed in December the following year, though it should be pointed out that this exceptional performance was made possible by the expedient of using the guns and mountings that were intended for the Lord Nelson class. As Beresford noted, ‘The basis of comparison as regards other battleships was, however, vitiated by the fact that the time of construction was dated from the laying down of the Dreadnought to her launch. But between the date when the order was given for the material, and the laying of the keel-plate, months were occupied in manufacturing the material and in bringing it to the building slip. Furthermore, the gun-mountings of two most valuable ships then under construction, the Lord Nelson and the Agamemnon, were taken for the Dreadnought, so that the completion of the vessels for which they were intended was delayed for nearly two years.’ Beresford, The Betrayal, pp. 60-1.

[40]  A delay which would result in the self-satisfied comment being voiced in Britain that it was ‘a circumstance which has not surprised anyone’. The Naval Annual 1908, p. 23.

[41]  V. R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, p. 49 [emphasis in original].

[42]  Fisher added: ‘But there was another reason never yet made public. Our existing battleships of the latest type draw too much water to get close into the German waters, but the German Admiralty is going (is obliged) to spend 12½ millions sterling [in dredging] to allow our existing ships to go and fight them! It was a Machiavellian interference of Providence on our behalf that brought about the evolution of the Dreadnought! … England has 7 Dreadnoughts and 3 ‘Invincibles’ (in my opinion better than Dreadnoughts), total — 10 Dreadnoughts built and building, while Germany in March last had not begun one! even if in May last a German Dreadnought had been commenced!’ Did Fisher seriously expect that British battleships could go close inshore; what of the submarine and mine menace? Fisher to King Edward, 4 October 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 140. See also the amended version in Fisher’s Memories which refers specifically to pre-Dreadnoughts.

[43]  G. Weir, Building the Kaiser’s Navy, (Annapolis, 1992), pp. 95-6; Holger Herwig, Luxury Fleet, (London, 1980), pp. 59-60; Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 112; Conway’s All the World's Fighting Ships 1906-21, (London, 1985), p. 145.

[44]  For example, Fisher to Esher, 13 September 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 266; Fisher to Arnold White, 8 January 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 113.

[45]  Fisher to Tweedmouth, 26 September 1906, Marder, F.G.D.N. Vol. II, p. 91.

[46]  D. K. Brown, A Century of Naval Construction, p. 92. However, in a subsequent work [Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 193] Brown admits: ‘It is fashionable to decry the whole concept of the battle-cruiser but consideration of Invincible’s brief but glorious operational life suggests strongly that Fisher was right.’ This, of course, depends on the battle cruiser being in the correct tactical rôle, as at the Falkland Islands.

[47]  Parkes, British Battleships, p. 441; W Hovgaard, A Modern History of Warships, (London, 1920), p. 214.

[48]  Quoted in Marder, Anatomy, p. 285.

[49]  The Naval Annual 1908, pp. 3-4; see also Parkes, British Battleships, p. 489.

[50]  Conway’s All the World's Fighting Ships 1906-21, p. 24.

[51]  See Parkes, British Battleships, chap. 83; Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 192.

[52]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 51 ff.

[53]  “The Armoured Cruiser Question,” in The Naval Annual, 1908, pp. 90-1. The writer noted that the ‘implications of a main armament of 12-inch guns in the new large cruisers was not overlooked: it was noted that, ‘When counting his strength and comparing it with that of his adversary, a Naval commander is not likely to leave guns out of the competition. We shall be pretty safe in crediting him with a desire, amounting when in the neighbourhood of the enemy to a determination, to keep as many as he can on his own side. When a fight is near at hand, which it would probably be if the hostile fleet were within reconnoitring distance, that he would send away in one group a broadside of eight 12-in. guns is so improbable that we may dismiss it from consideration. He may have some misgivings as to the efficiency of the protective armour of the ship whose guns he could so ill-spare at the moment; and these misgivings may be accompanied by a regret that the money expended on her had not been devoted to the production of a real battleship. The more the armoured cruiser question is examined, the more difficult it becomes to fix the rôle which she could best play in war’.

[54]  The ships proved useful for commerce protection during the First World War, while Sturdee’s battle cruisers successfully destroyed von Spee’s weaker squadron at the Falkland Islands in 1914 after being dispatched hence by Fisher himself.

[55]  Admiralty memorandum, “The role of the battle-cruiser 1913”, by Commander Reginald Plunkett, given in, Hattendorf, Knight, Pearsall, Rodger and Till (eds.), British Naval Documents 1204-1960, Navy Records Society, (1993), pp. 928-31.

[56]  Admiralty Committee Report, “The fast battleship”, January 1906, given in, Hattendorf, Knight, Pearsall, Rodger and Till (eds.), British Naval Documents 1204-1960, Navy Records Society, (1993), pp. 920-2.

[57]  The figures for Invincible were: 17,250 tons; 8 x 12-inch guns; 25 knots. For Dreadnought they were: 17,900 tons, 10 x 12-inch guns; 21 knots. Details of “X4” can be found in, Keith McBride, “After the Dreadnought”, in Robert Gardiner (ed.), Warship 1992, pp. 99-108.

[58]  This lapse was even more unforgivable as, due to hard bargaining, the Admiralty was able to negotiate a substantial price reduction so that Indefatigable was actually £200,000 cheaper than the smaller Invincible. Keith McBride, “After the Dreadnought”, in Robert Gardiner (ed.), Warship 1992, p. 107.

[59]  The Naval Annual 1907, p. 1.

[60]  The Naval Annual 1908, p. 3.

[61]  Fisher to Sir Philip Watts, 17 September 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 195-6.

[62]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 44-5.

[63]  Admiralty memorandum, “The role of the battle-cruiser 1913”, by Commander Reginald Plunkett, given in, Hattendorf, Knight, Pearsall, Rodger and Till (eds.), British Naval Documents 1204-1960, Navy Records Society, (1993), pp. 928-31.

[64]  Hugh Lyon, “The relations between the Admiralty and private industry in the development of warships”, in B Ranft (ed.), Technical Change and British Naval Policy 1860-1939, p. 59.

[65]  First Lord’s Statement, 14 February 1905, The Naval Annual 1905, pp. 425-432.

[66]  Cawdor Memorandum, The Naval Annual 1906, pp. 353 ff.

[67]  Mackay, Fisher, pp. 356-8; Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 125-7; Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 60-1; Marder, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 90-1; The Naval Annual 1907, pp. 1-2.

[68]  Beresford, The Betrayal, pp. 70-2.

[69]  Fisher to the Prince of Wales, 23 October 1906, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 102-5.



THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller

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