Academic journal article Naval War College Review

EXPECTATION, ADAPTATION, AND RESIGNATION: British Battle Fleet Tactical Planning, August 1914-April 1916

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

EXPECTATION, ADAPTATION, AND RESIGNATION: British Battle Fleet Tactical Planning, August 1914-April 1916

Article excerpt

In mid-July 1914, a trial mobilization of the active and reserve warships of the Royal Navy, which had been planned the previous fall, put virtually all of Britain's effective naval forces on a war footing. This event coincided with the increasingly rancorous great-power dispute precipitated by the Balkans crisis. The deteriorating European political situation prompted the Admiralty to delay the dispersal of the bulk of the fleet after the conclusion of the exercise. On 28 July, with hostilities against Germany a strong possibility, Britain's manned and ready naval forces were ordered to their war stations. On 4 August, war between Britain and Germany began. Fortuitous preparedness foreclosed the possibility of naval debacle from surprise attack. With Britain's first-line naval strength poised to fight, the stage was set for a full-scale encounter with the German battle fleet. Many on both sides expected a major battle to take place within days, but the German navy did not sortie. Subsequent German operational reticence would keep its main body beyond the reach of British guns for nearly two years.

For much of this time, the Royal Navy entertained hopes of fighting and winning a decisive battle. By the spring of 1916, however, the vision of achieving an industrial Trafalgar had been given up, replaced by the view that such a victory was not worth the risks that would have to be taken to impose action on an unwilling opponent. In May 1916, however, chance and circumstance resulted in a major encounter between the main naval forces of Britain and Germany off the coast of Denmark. The outcome of the battle of Jutland, however, was in conclusive. In spite of large superiorities in numbers and firepower, moreover, the British battle fleet not only failed to destroy its adversary, but suffered heavier losses. Historians have attributed the causes of this unsatisfactory result to several factors, including weaknesses in British operational command and Admiralty organization, and defective materiel.1 In addition, much has been made of what can be called British tactical sterility-that is to say, British battle fleet tactics of the period are portrayed as simple, unimaginative, and, above all, unchanging.

The present article will challenge the conventional portrayal of early British wartime naval tactical planning by considering the interlocking technical, strategic, operational, and intelligence factors that shaped tactical intent. The examination of the interior mind of Britain's naval leadership is based on the author's recently published findings on prewar British naval tactical planning, and mainly primary sources covering the war. The inquiry will address the following three questions: What form did the leadership of the Royal Navy expect a major fleet action to take, and why? When reality did not correspond to expectations, how did the leadership of the Royal Navy respond? And finally, what circumstances conditioned the responses? The story to be told is not one of action but of the changing attitudes that informed potential action.2

Arthur J. Marder, the author of the standard account of early-twentieth-century naval policy, depicted a Royal Navy that on the outbreak of war was commanded by admirals who were tactically unprogressive, self-satisfied, and thoughtless.3 Marder's assessment was based upon the memoirs of prominent naval officers and politicians.4 Such apparently authoritative testimony was, however, corrupted by a combination of partisanship, ignorance, and perhaps fading memory. A considerable body of documentary evidence supports a very different view of the state of tactical thinking in the Royal Navy in 1914. By this time, more than a decade of rapid technical development and comprehensive tactical experiment had provided the basis for two different tactical outlooks. The first school of thought, which will be called the "agnostic opportunists," believed that a future major sea battle with the German navy could take any number of different forms and that the British fleet thus needed to be prepared to operate effectively under a broad range of tactical conditions. …

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