Of the many arguments and conclusion which are presented in the following pages, three may be regarded as the major ones: Firstly, that Britain's naval rise and fall has been so closely bound up with her economic rise and fall that it is impossible to understand the former without a close examination of the latter; secondly, that sea power exerted its greatest influence upon world affairs between the early 16th and the later 19th centuries, that is, between the creation of the oceanic sailing-ship on the one hand and the industrialization of continental land-masses on the other; and thirdly, that even within the so-called 'Columbian' era the influence of sea power had some very natural limitations which British governments needed to take account of in peacetime and in wartime. It was not by maritime methods alone, but by a judicious blending of both sea power and land power, that Britain rose to become the leading world power.
~ #1 The Early Years of English Sea Power
~ #2 The Stuart Navy and the Wars with the Dutch
~ #3 The Struggle against France and Spain
~ #4 Triumph and Check
~ #5 The Struggle against France Renewed
~ #6 Pax Britannica
~ #7 Mahan versus Mackinder
~ #8 The End of Pax Britannica
~ #9 Stalemate and Strain
~ #10 The Years of Decay
~ #11 The Illusory Victory
~ #12 The End of the Road
The Elements of Sea Power]
"Tactics, using as its instruments the weapons made by man, shares in the change and progress of the race from generation to generation. From time to time the superstructure of tactics has to be altered or wholly torn down; but the old foundations of strategy so far remain, as though laid upon a rock."
- AT Mahon, "The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783"
This statement probably comes as close to a definition of sea power as Mahan ever attempted: "the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy's flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and from the enemy's shores".
The Early Years of English Sea Power]
"Thus sea power in... its classic age was a highly complex factor, defensive as well as offensive; economic or, more specifically, financial as much as military; achieving its greatest effects not so much by its own intrinsic strength as by its skilful exploitation of the weaknesses of its opponents. By its aid first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British were able to wield an influence out of all proportion to their size, resources and man power. Thanks to its unique key position Great Britain was able not merely to control the flow of overseas treasure but to manipulate on the continent of Europe the balance of half a dozen powers, each intrinsically superior to her in every other respect."
- H Rosinski, "Brassey's Naval Annual (1947)"
Queen Elizabeth remarked "If the nation of Spain should make a conquest of those [Low] Countries... in that danger ourself, our countries and people might shortly be". Even France had to be accorded the same treatment, to keep her as a check against Spain. "Whenever the last day of France came it would also be the eve of the destruction of England". The country could survive in a world of two Leviathans, but not in a world of one. And France and Spain were Leviathans, whether judged in terms of land, finances and man power, compared with what Elizabethan England could muster.
Elizabeth, to her lasting credit, had preserved a correct balance between maritime and continental policies and, in doing so, had helped to create a situation favourablke to England's future security and growth: for the exhaustion of Spain at sea and on land had maintained that power equilibrium so necessary for the independence of the rising nation-states of western Europe. Yet her government always appreciated that the Spainish war had been not so much a victory but an avoidance of defeat, and that it was crucial for England's future, if at all possible, to avoid standing alone against one of the Leviathans. "The surest way to avoid the burden and strain was to keep an ever-watchful eye on the continental Powers, to see that the balance never swung too sharply towards either the one or the other, above all to keep the coast between Brest and Emden from falling under a single master." In a world where four or five countries could check each other's ambition, England would have less cause to fear for her own security, and her natural advantages as an island nation would reveal themselves.
The Stuart Navy and the Wars with the Dutch]
"The governments of the 1650s were the first in English history to have a world strategy."
- C Hill, "The Century of Revolution"
The Struggle against France and Spain]
"In the 17th century men killed, tortued and executed each other for political beliefs; they sacked towns and brutalized the countryside. They were subjected to conspiracy, plot and invasion. This uncertain political world lasted until 1715, and then began rapidly to vanish. By comparison, the political structure of 18th-century England possesses adamantine strength and profound inertia."
- JH Plumb, "The Growth of Political Stability in England"
The mutually supporting elements of domestic industry, overseas trade, colonial expansion and maritime strength observable under Cromwell and the later Stuarts were also to be perceived in the decades following, their most concrete manifestation being the steady acquisition of new territories as a result of military victories. At the Peace of Utrecht (1713) Britain came away with Gibraltar, Minorca, Hudson's Bay, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) produced only a stalemate solution but after the Seven Years War she scooped the colonial jackpot of Canada, Cape Breton Island, Florida, St Vincent, Tobago, Dominica and Grenada, together with effective political control of India.
"France will outdo
is at sea when they have nothing to fear on land. I have always mainatined
that our marine should protect our alliances on the Continent, and so,
by diverting the expense of France, enable us to maintain our superiority
- The Duke of Newcastle (1742)
"Never, perhaps, did
any war, after so many great events, and so large a loss of blood and treasure,
end in replacing the nations engaged in it so nearly in the same position
as they held at first."
- AT Mahan, on the stalemate of 1748 in "The Influence of Sea Power upon History"
Triumph and Check]
Although previous wars had seen the Great Powers fighting both in Europe and overseas, the Seven Years War can lay a far stronger claim to the title of the first world war than many others before or since, because sustained and significant fighting took place in three continents and also because the two chief combatants attached a great deal of importance to their colonial campaigns: far more, it may be noted, than was attached to their equivalents in the 'First World War' of 1914-18.
The most important struggle of all was taking place in North America, where the westward drive of the British settlers into the Ohio region clashed with the French scheme to link their Canadian territories with the Mississippi. By the mid-1750s frontier clashes had become so serious that each power was dispatching reinforcements across the Atlantic and putting its fleets upon a war footing. Even without the European complications it was clear that an Anglo-French war would have been difficult to avoid. With Europe providing its own powder-barrel in the form of Austrian-Prussian rivalry and the respective attitudes of France, Russia, Britain and lesser states to that antagonism, a long drawn-out conflict, with the inevitable intermingling of continental and colonial compaigns, was virtually inevitable.
"It not only defeated
the projected invasion, which had hung menacingly so long over the apprehensions
of Great Britain, but it gave the finishing blow to the naval power of
- CJ Marcus, on the victory of Quiberon Bay, "A Naval History of England"
The Anglo-Prussian alliance had lasted long enough to blunt French power and to prevent any Bourbon attempt to dominate Europe in the fututre, as well as safeguarding Hanover. As such, it had been well worth while for London to invest £10 million in subsidies to continental allies, and to allow 18000 of its own troops to fight inside Germany by 1761. Pitt had, as he himself put it, conquered Canada in Germany, and much else besides... it was of course from the increasing trade receipts and the growing wealth of the country that the British government could afford to finance a fleet of over 120 ships of the line and to have over 200000 soldiers (including German mercenaries) on British pay, and to subsidize Prussia... but perhaps only Pitt could have seen how the financial, the naval, the military, the colonial and the European policies of Britain could be welded into one coherent whole. So complete was Britain's maritime dominance by 1761 that, even with Pitt's departure and Spain having joined France in the war, the victories continued to accumulate.
It may be that the Cabinet's calculation about the possibility of Britain becoming so overweening at sea that she would provoke a coalition of all other countries against herself was a shrewder perception of the preconditions for international stability than Pitt's apparent wish for the total oblivion of all her enemies. Even after the handing back to France of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Maria Galante, St Lucia, Goree, Belle Isle and a share of the Newfoundland fisheries, and to Spain of Cuba and Manila, Britain merged from the Peace of Paris in 1763 with the greatest collection of spoils in her history. With France expelled from Canada, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island (and withdrawing from Louisiana on behalf of Spain), and Spain excluded from West Florida, she had virtually total control of the valuable North American continent; Minorca was restroed to preserve her dominance in the Mediterranean; Senegal taken to increase her position in West Africa; Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and Tobago acquired in the West Indied; and French political influence was eradicated in India. At the same time the continental balance of power had been upheld while Hanover remained independent. All these gains, which laid the foundations for the British Empire of the 19th century, appeared the more remarkable by the fact that no other power benefitted positively from the war; even Frederick had achieved only the recognition of Prussia's existing hold upon Silesia.
Even had Great Britain possessed naval mastery throughout the war, could she have overcome the resistance to her rule in North America? Here she was fighting a war under circumstances quite different from any she had hitherto experienced. The original British Empire had been chiefly a trading concern, with a few bases and outposts and settlements, but nothing which had required large garrisons; even when war occured, the expeditions sent out to defend or capture the more valuable West Indies islands usually comprised fewer than 10000 men. The colonies were essentially protected by sea power, by the ability of the Royal Navy to keep the lines of communication to the mother country secure from enemy attack; indeed one major reason for the growth of her empire was this ability of Britain, lying on the flank of the continent, to 'isolate' the world overseas from her European rivals, a policy which broke down permanently only in the later 19th century, with the rise of American and Japanese navies geographically invulnerable to such a throttling process. Thus normally, the inhabitants of the early colonies recognized the need to maintain a loyalty to Britain, whose armed forces protected them from indigenous or foreign attack, and whose products and markets they depended upon. They were small, isolated, privileged communities, neither able nor willing to obtain independence. But by the middle of the 18th century, the North American colonies had grown into something quite different. Their population, already over 2 million souls, was doubling every 30 years, and now that the French threat had been removed, their ties of loyalty to London were weakening. Nor did these colonists, many of them political and religious refugees (or their descendants), share that desire of the West Indies planters and East India Company officials to return to Britain at the end of their days - another obvious reason for loyalty. Finally, whilst the Americans certainly engaged in a busy commerce with the motherland, the fact remained that they were self-sufficient in foodstuffs and many other commodities. This, together with the sheer size of the country, meant that - unlike all other British colonists - the North American states were largely impervious to the workings of sea power.
"It is probable that
to restore British authority in America was a problem beyond the power
of military means to solve, however perfectly applied."
- Corelli Barnett, "Britain and Her Army"
It was true of course, that the Royal Navy could control the eastern seaboard and river estuaries, but farther west the rebels could act with impunity... part of the problem was the disparate nature of the resistance; in a European war a successful march upon the hostile capital usually resulted in a surrender, but colonial society was so loosely organized that the capture of New York or Philadelphia brought no such results as the capture of Berlin or Paris. Conquering America produced the same problems for the British as conquering Russia did for Napoleon, and it is possible that only the presence of so many loyalists gave Britain the chance to fight at all and made her task appear less hopeless than it seems in retrospect.
Britain's difficulties in fighting a large-scale land campaign at the other end of the oceans remind one of the similar problems she encountered in the Boer War of 1899-1902, yet in that latter conflict the Royal Navy was very strong and there was no intervention by the continental powers. In view of the parlous situation in which she found herself during the war of 1776-83, the marvel is that she held on to so much.
By bringing together the strategic lessons of Britain's defeat in the War of American Independence and those of her success in the Seven Years War, it is possible to perceive the conditions under which she was most likely to achieve victory over her larger and more populous French neighbour. In the first place she did not dare become too committed to a struggle for control over vast areas of land, wherever it was located, for this was beyond the capacity of her army and it deranged her whole war effort: a campaign abroad in which she could rely upon the support of her colonials or of foreign troops (eg Prussia) was of course a different matter. Added to this need to avoid military over-commitment was the equally pressing requirement of discovering some method of distracting her Bourbon rivals from a purely maritime war. With British naval mastery thus underpinned by a shrewd European policy, she could eliminate French and Spanish possessions overseas, protect her own trade, and utilize this growing source of revenue to sustain her continental partners in the struggle to exhaust France in a land war; if necessary, she could also send a respectable, though limited number of her own troops to fight in Europe and to augment her subsidy policy. This was the recipe for success and recognized as such by Elizabeth I, Marlborough, Pitt and other asture strategists, often in defiance of the pleas of isolationists. For despite the arguments of the latter, the hard fact remains that, of the seven Anglo-French wars which took place between 1689 and 1815, the only one which Britain lost was that in which no fighting took place in Europe.
Pitt's fears about the loss of the American colonies proved false. British trade with the United States after 1785 was still growing the fastest of all; the American demand for British goods apparently outweighed their dislike of their former enemies. Shelburne's slogan, that he preferred trade to dominion, was no doubt "putting a brave rhetorical gloss on a grave imperial disaster", but it did seem astonishing to contemporaries that the loss of political control had no serious economic consequences...this latter fact provided useful ammunition for the critics of mercantilism.
The Struggle against France Renewed]
"Britain had never been able to give her allies the will to fight France, but by 1813 the great powers had found that essential requirement within themselves. What they now required of Britain was what she could send them: the money and the arms needed to transform that will into victory over the common enemy."
- JM Sherwig, "Guineas and Gunpowder"
Britain's problem was that it required a combination of herself and the three great military powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia to defeat a regenerated France; yet each of these states was at times prepared to abandon the coalition and to ally with Napoleon, either out of fear or of greed. Britain was consistently anti-French but without the combined 'continental sword' she could do little. Only with the failure of Napoleon's attack upon Russia was it possible to build up a coalition determined and united enough to overcome France's military power finally.
In the North American struggle of 1756-63 the British had won because of their numerical superiority in that continent and because the French had been too distracted by European war to challenge the Royal Navy's control of sea communications. In the renewed conflict of 1776-83 the British had lost because they had attempted to subdue a vast continent with inadequate manpower and logistical support and because the French and Spaniards were free from European entanglements and able to exploit London's colonial embarrassments. In this third and final round (War of 1812) the result was a draw, because these various determinants were mixed and tended to cancel each other out. The French navy was in no position to interfere in North America, indeed, there was no cooperation at all between Paris and Washington in this war although they were both facing a common enemy.
Britain had gained greatly in the 18th century by having made clever alliances, comments PGM Dickson; "More important even that alliances, however, was the system of public borrowing... which enabled England to spend on war out of all proportion to its tax revenue, and thus to throw into the struggle with France and its allies the decisive margin in ships and men without which the resources previously committed might have been committed in vain".
"England is mistress of the seas, not by virtue of any arrogant or aggressive pretensions, but by virtue of her history, or her geographical situation, of her economic antecedents and conditions, of her Imperial position and expansion. These conditions have given the dominion of the seas to her, not by any prescriptive right, but by a normal natural process of evolution; and so long as they subsist and she is true to herself, they will retain it for her."
- The Times, February 1902.
Great Britain was the only really industrialized nation in the world; that her predominance in commerce, transport, insurance and finance was great, and in most cases increasing; that she possess the most extensive colonial empire ever seen, yet one which was to multiply in size during the century; and that, despite occasional scares, her naval strength and potential was virtually unchallengeable. What was more, she managed to maintain this dominace, this peace of Britain, at a cost to the nation of £1 or less per annum per head of population in defence expenditure - equivalent to somewhere between 2 and 3 per cent of national income. Rarely has such a position in the world been purchased so cheaply. This special place of Great Britain in the 19th century was rooted in her industrial revolution, and in the fact that her main European rivals had been crushed by 1815 through a long series of wars.
Britain enjoyed effortless naval supremacy in the years following 1815 not only because every one of the other powers found it impossible to build and man the same number of warships, had an insufficient merchant marine to back it up in time of war, lacked adequate overseas bases and possessed an industrial strength that was infantile by comparison, but also because they made little effort, either individually or collectively, to mount any sort of prolonged challenge to thie mastery. Circumstances had given the British manifold advantages which they were not slow to seize; yet to a certain extent their worldwide maritime predominance existed by default. Their rivals simply did not wish to spend the time and energy necessary to curb it. One reason for this was that Britain's activities in the post-Napoleonic decades were not a great danger to other nations.
Even a bitter and suspicious United States recognized the great advantages in trading with Britain and in the maritime muscle of the Royal Navy which turned the Monroe Doctrine from an optimistic proclamation into a political reality. No doubt every other country would have preferred to exercise naval mastery itself; but since this was not possible, it seemed better that Britain rather than any other rival should do so. Occasionally, of course, the flaunting of this supremacy in the efforts to abolish the slave trade or in the Mediterranean in the 1830s caused annoyance to one or more powers, but never at any time did it appear that Britain would become a threat to the primary and vital interests of a majority of the other nations.
In short, Europe did not concern itself with the outside world, Britain did not interfere on the continent except in peripheral (mainly Mediterranean) matters. This was the power-political framework in which the Pax Britannica operated.
Even more spectacular was the British adoption of a revolutionary system of commercial interchange - free trade - and the success they had in persuading many other nations to copy this, at least to a certain extent. The Mercantilist doctrine of fostering wealth through monopoly and state power, which had been the ideological driving force behind so much of Britain's expansion in the previous two centuries, had been overthrown by the followers of Adam Smith, Ricardo and their school. To some, this reversal of policy, precisely at the point when Britain had the power to enforce a crushing mercantilist victory, seemed incredible. To the Free Traders it was purely commonsense. Britain depended upon a growing world trade - the more, the better. Furthermore, with her great industrial lead, her large merchant marine, her financial expertise, she above all was unqiely suited to benefit from the greater exchange of commodities; whereas a rigorous mercantilist attitude would merely force other states to build up their own industries quickly behind tariff walls, thus hitting international commerce.
It is perhaps an adequate comment upon the shortsightedness of merely looking at the areas painted red on the map to remind onself that almost 70% of British emigration (1812-1914), over 60% of British exports (1800-1900) and over 80% of British capital (1815-80) went to regions outside the formal empire.
It was scarcely suprising that foreigners suspected the motives behind Palmerston's interest in the eradication of the slave trade. After all, in the constant use of naval vessels to enforce London's will and in the forceful actions against native potentates, the occasional seizures of a strategic point and the bullying of weaker powers, he was employing all the methods associated with that practice for which he has become most famous - gunboat diplomacy. The expression itself is a misleading one, if by it one understand simply the employment of shallow-draught gun-vessels to police the trade of the Yangtse Valley, or to overcome the slave-trading King of Dahomey. Since that type of warship, only really developed after the Crimean War, perfectly suited the mid-Victorian political philosophy by being cheap to build and maintain, and since its fire-power and shallow-draught were ideal for the expansion of western influence up rivers in the tropics, it is easy to see how its name was taken up to symbolize this British habit. Yet the term would be better defined in a more general manner as 'the use of warships in peacetime to further a nation's diplomatic and political aims'. The occasional punitive measures by gunboats adopted by gunboats in support of British interests in Africa and China were far less important than the existnce of the main battle-fleets in waters of international interest. A fleet of warships, to use Nelson's quip, were always the best negotiators.
In 1848, 31 warships were deployed in the Mediterranean to maintain British interests and to counter the efforts of rivals there; 25 were needed on the East Indies and China Station, one for each of the newly-opened treaty ports and the rest to suppress the endemic piracy; 27 toiled against the slavers off the west coast of Africa, aided by 10 at the Cape and a further 10 in the West Indies; 14 were protecting commercial interests along the south-east coast of South America, and 12 patrolled the vast stretches of the Pacific. In contrast, only 35 were active in home waters, 12 of them being stationed in Ireland to check political disturbances.
Mahan versus Mackinder]
"From Vancouver's isle to the River Plate, from the West Indies to China the Admiralty is called upon by Secretaries of State to send ships... The undeniable fact is that we are doing or endeavoring to do much more than our force is sufficient for. It is fortunate that the world is not larger, for there is no other limit to the service of our fleets."
- First Lord of the Admirality (1861)
A demand for fresh markets and sources for raw materials, a rise in nationalism and changes in the balance of power, a yellow Press catering for the first time to a mass readership, internal challenges to the political status quo, the spread of Darwinistic notions had pushed the great powers into a frantic search for overseas possessions. Hitherto, the British had usually to contend with the spasmodic challenges of the French. Now many more nations entered the fray, with the result that Britain's comfortable and extensive 'informal empire' in Africa and Asia virtually disappeared: it either had to be made formal or it was annexed by others. The whole experience was most unpleasant for British statesmen. No doubt they secured a larger share of colonial real estate in this scramble than anyone else but once again their position had relatively declined; informal control of most of the tropics was exchanged for formal control of one quarter of it.
The British public of the 1880s and 1890s would have been more upset still had the second aspect of Halford Mackinder's thesis been known to them: that the sea power was itself waning in relation to land power... perhaps the real villain of the piece was tha railway, ironically a British invention, and one which had greatly benefitted the British economy and people. Nevertheless, the transformation it wrought upon such areas as central Europe, the 'Heartland' of Russia and the mid-west of the United States was far more decisive; the industrialization of those regions, despite the assertions of certain economists in recent years, was scarcely feasible without the railway. The transport of goods which had for centuries been cheaper and faster by water, not became easier by land, a tendency which was to increase with the introduction of motorized transport in the 20th century... With the improvement of land communications, a nation without much seaboard, but with a large population and extensive territories, could now exploit its resources, and the peculiar advantages of small, predominantly naval-commercial countries such as Holland and Britain were gradually being lost. People too, could be transported across land much faster, a fact which not only affected shipping companies but also had direct military implications.
The newer world powers,
the United States and Germany, and the old enemy, Russia, having less of
their national wealth bound up in overseas trade, were far less susceptible
to defeat by naval pressure alone then ever Spain, the Netherlands or even
France had been. To seize the Spanish 'flota' or to interrupt the Dutch
trade with the Indies had been to deal the enemy's economy a very severe
blow indeed; but now it was different. The trade which British privateers
of the 17th and 18th century had harassed was that between ports which
then belonged to her rivals - Ceylon, Mauritius, Cape Colony, Guinea, Dominica,
Trinidad, Grenada, French Canada.
Since those times they had all become British. In the second place, colonial trade as a whole had declined in importance; the gold and silver from Latin America, the spices from the East Indies, the rum and tobacco and sugar from the West Indies, had no modern equivalents - except perhaps the carriage of raw materials nad foodstuffs to the British Isles itself. In other words the best targets were now nearly all British. Thirdly, the coming of the railway had reduced the effectiveness of the blockade and the possibility of paralysing the enemy's trade.
"It's not invasion
we have to fear if our Navy's beaten, it's starvation."
- Admiral Fisher
By 1913, 55% of the grain and 40% of the meat consumed in Britain was imported. The protection of the thousands of merchant ships carrying this immense commerce was seen to be a far more crucial task for the Royal Navy in any future conflict that it had been in the past. From an economic point of view, Britain was more susceptible to bloackade than any other power on earth.
Might one also detect the deeper fear that the supremacy of the submarine, torpedo-boat and aeroplane on the naval battlefield would presage the fall of Britain's own maritime mastery? A battlefleet, after all, could only be built by a limited number of states and took many years to create, giving the British time to take counter measures; but any reasonably ambitious country could afford aircraft and submarines, thus assuring to itself at least local naval dominance.
"It appears that despite
the historic past of the British Army on the Continent the general impression
among foreign officers is that literally we have no army at all."
- General Maurice
The End of Pax Britannica]
"Because of that formidable and threatening Armada across the North Sea, we have almost abandoned the waters of the Outer Oceans. We are in the position of Imperial Rome when the Barbarians were thundering at the frontiers. The ominous word has gone forth. We have called home the legions."
- The Standard, May 1912.
"The building of the
German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political
ambition of the German Government and nation which are the source of the
- Sir Eyre Crowe, of the British Foreign Office
Arguments against participation in a European war, of morality and of Britain's traditional policy, were overwhelmed in 1914 by equally cogent counter-arguments: the morality of defending 'poor little Belgium' against 'Prussian militarism', the need to honour the moral obligation to France, and the importance, understood by every British statesmen since Elizabethan times, of preventing a powerful hostile state from gaining control of the Low Countries. Critics at the time and afterwards may have detected in Britain's ultimatum to Germany of 4 August 1914 an abandonment of their country's traditional policy; but one feels that those Britons who had faced the challenges of Philip of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon in preceding centuries would have given their full approval.
Stalemate and Strain]
The importance of the geographical setting for an understanding of the Admiralty's policy in the two world wars which Britain waged against Germany in this century cannot be exaggerated. The situation would have been completely different if the war had been against France or Spain, where a wide blockade strategy was far more difficult and where the many risks attendant upon a close blockade would have had to have been run instead. In 1914-18 and in 1939-40, however, Britain could luxuriate in this great geographical vis-a-vis Germany. As a consequence, it is worth suggesting, the extent of Britain's naval decline was partly concealed during the first half of the 20th century. Few saw how great a role geography played in the checking of the German challenge.
The North Sea stalemate was again confirmed by Jutland, and the whole situation was aptly summed up by a New York newspaper, which announced: "The German Fleet has assaulted its jailor but it is still in jail". It is one of the ironies of naval history that Admiral Scheer's final report upon the Jutland battle plainly advised the Kaiser that Germany could not win the surface war in the North Sea against Britain.
There was a growing unease in official circles in the following months at the way in which the vulnerability of the battleships had once again been demonstrated. Jellicoe's famous 'turn-away' order when the German destroyer flotillas attacked to save Scheer's battleships was the great symbol of this weakness, as Vice-Admiral Hoffmann percipiently noted in a private letter about the battle a few days's later: "The result incidentally strengthens my conviction that the days of super-dreadnoughts are numbered. It is senseless to build 30000-ton ships which cannot defend themselves against a torpedo shot".
The end of the battleship was in sight when it was no longer able to command the seas without a bevy of escorts, and when it came to be regarded by both British and German admiralties as a drain upon their precious supplies of destroyers and submarines, which were so desperately needed for the vital struggle elsewhere.
The British Empire emerged successfully from the First World War with its enemies defeated, its territory enhanced, and its army and navy stronger than ever before; yet its real position was "quite different in fact from what it appeared to be outwardly". "Victory in the true sense", Liddell Hart has pointed out, "surely implies that one is better off after the war than if one had not made war. Victory in this sense, is only possible if the result is quickly gained or the effort economically proportioned to the national resources". By this definition, it is clear that there had been no real victory for Britain: she had suffered grevious losses in manpower and shipping, strained her industrial and fiscal system, declined further in world commerce, lost her hitherto unchallenged financial predominance and - as a result of all this - was now in no position to maintain maritime supremacy against the United States: naval equality, and that on the basis of an uneasy truce, was all that could be hoped for.
On the other hand, to have shrunk from a large scale continental commitment would have been to accede to a German domination of Europe - and to a later, far more serious threat to Britain's security. Faced with a choice between two evils, London had naturally elected that which appeared to be the lesser. Probably this selection was correct, but the consequences of it were now to be faced. A prolonged modern war, with its attendant costs, could be afforded only by the richest, most populous industrialized states: those with smaller populations and fewer resources, like Britain, were faced instead with the danger of ruin.
The Years of Decay]
"Instead of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, based upon a nice calculation of mutual interests and relative capacities, Britain was to enter into a new system whose functioning would principally depend upon the incalculable shifts and whims of the American democracy."
- M Beloff, on the outcome of the Washington Naval Conference in "Imperial Sunset"
That these few years [1920s] of 'placidity' were to be virtually the last the armed services enjoyed, has made the British government, and its economic and strategic advisers, easy targets for retrospective criticism. It would, however, have taken a prophet of rare sagacity and insight to have forseen that the international situation would change so swiftly, and that so many simultaneous threats to the British Empire would occur precisely at a time when its defenses were weakest and when the public's attention was riveted upon the domestic scene. Probably the government's greatest failure was that it was unlucky, which is always fatal in politics. On the other hand there is no doubt that it failed to see how hard it would be for a democratic government swiftly to change gear, if ever it should be necessary to increase the unpopular defence spending, and that it ignored until the very last moment the possibility that its own pacifistic inclinations might not be shared by others. Even at the time it was well known that other powers were not disarming to anything like the degree Britain had done. In the Far East, despite the Singapore base scheme and the plan to send out a fleet within 60 days, Whitehall was simply gambling upon the hope that Japan would not be aggressive. In Europe the desire to avoid any unpleasantness or commitments was even more deliberate... for, despite the border rectifications and reparations clauses of Versaillesm Germany had been left nearly intact; and even the implementation of the treaty, as AJP Taylor notes, depended basically upon German goodwill.
The final consequence of the growth of air power was that, no matter how great a navy Britain possessed, she was no longer fully free from attack by a foreign state: the 'wooden walls' of the island nation had at last been breached. The Royal Navy's claim to primacy in the defence of the British Isles had now been overtaken by events... few perceived the deeper implications of this military revolution - that the defence of any region from which bombing raids upon Britain could be launched had now become essential to national security. In other words, as Baldwin was to express in 1934, their frontier had moved from Dover to the Rhine. Here was a further and very substansial reinforcement of the traditional strategic need to preserve the independence of the Low Countries and to keep northern France from occupation by a hostile power. Yet it was to be many years before this fact dawned upon the politicians, who were striving to 'isolate' Britain once again from political or military commitments to the continent.
Perhaps the greatest failure was in the field of strategy: there was little development in the organization of a fast carrier force, which would itself have an offensive capacity, reaching out to cripple the enemy fleet or securing command of the air (and ergo, the sea) in a certain region. While the Americans and Japanese developed large naval air forces, they also adopted new techniques for the use of this weapon. At the outbreak of war, however, the Admiralty still favoured using carriers singly, on anti-submarine patrols or in operations with battle-cruisers to detect surface raiders. Like the French tanks in 1940, the crucial weakness was in the actual concentration and deployment, and instead of being the chief weapon they were still regarded as auxiliaries.
Britain, whilst bickering with the French, was in the awful situation of being opposed by three hostile, volatile aggressor-states, each of which was only waiting to see the western democracies engaged elsewhere before striking again.
The Illusory Victory]
"So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the Fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were almost an unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-Boat — the Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand's breadth; after 17 months of lonely fighting and 19 months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live."
- Winston Churchill, upon hearing of Pearl Harbor attack
Not even the American entry into the war prevented the naval struggle from being as critical in 1942 and 1943 as it had been a year earlier, especially in the battle of the Atlantic, which was once again the most important of all: if Britain lost this one, she had lost herself.
"Rarely can the flexibility
of maritime power have been more convincingly demonstrated than by Ark
Royal's accomplishment in flying Hurricanes to Malta from a position well
inside the Mediterranean on 21 May  and crippling the Bismarck with
her torpedo-bombers 500 miles to the west of Brest six days later."
- Captain SW Roskill, "The Navy At War"
It was quite symbolic that the largest battleship ever built, the 72000-ton Yamoto, was to be overwhelmed by bombs and torpedoes from American carrier planes alone, during its 'suicide run' to Okinawa. Like the Tirpitz, she had never fired her massive main armament against enemy battleships. "When she went down", Morison wrote, "five centuries of naval warfare ended". It was not purely a coincidence that those five centuries marked the period of the rise and fall of British naval mastery.
Hitler's aim, widely proclaimed, was economic autarky, an absolute freedom from dependence upon other states - and as such a direct contrast to the liberal concepts of international economic interdependence which influenced British attitudes.
Only Japan and Britain herself, both being island states heavily dependent upon sea-borne trade, proved economically susceptible to enemy naval pressure in the Second World War, although in both cases it was the submarine and not surface warships which provided the danger.
63% of German GNP was devoted to military expenditure by 1943 and the British figure was not far short of that, yet America's level was never more than 43%. With less effort, with fewer sacrifices, she was winning the war... It would therefore be no exaggeration to argue that Churchill's greatest contribution to the British war strategy was to recognize from the beginning that American support was absolutely essential, and to strive with all his charm and all his wiles to secure that assistance in a form best suited to the interests of the British Empire.
The fall of the British Isles implied for the United States what the fall of France and the Low Countries had implied for Britain. Hence too, an American anxiety over the future of the Royal Navy no less great than the Admiralty's concern for the French fleet.
"She sacrificed her
postwar future for the sake of the world."
- AJP Taylor, "English History 1914-45"
For Britain the glorious victory in the Second World War was an illusion, not only because her gains were purely negative ones and her losses were considerable, bt also because it was not generally recognized by her people that it had caused the collapse of her independent national power. And, as far as the future is concerned, an illusory victory is conceivably even worse than an open defeat.
The End of the Road]
"That extensive monarchy is exhausted at heart, her resources lie at a great distance, and whatever power commands the sea, may command the wealth and commerce of Spain. The dominions from which she draws her resources, lying at an immense distance from the capital and from one another, make it more necessary for her than for any other State to temporize, until she can inspire with activity all parts of her enormous but disjointed empire."
- AT Mahon, on 18th century Spain, in "The Influence of Sea Power upon History"
The world, and Britain's position in it, had been greatly changed, but the dust had not subsided enough for statesmen to see clearly how much of the earlier structure remained... Step by step the British retreated - or rather stumbled - back to their island base, whence they had emerged some two or more centuries earlier to dominate a great part of the globe and its oceans.
Of all the various stages in this withdrawal, there is little doubt that the most decisive occured in 1947, when the British government fulfilled long-standing pledges and pulled out of the Indian sub-continent. Whether the withdrawl from India was a virtue or a necessity, however, one thing was clear: the British Empire, of which India had for almost two centuries been the centre-piece, was coming to an end.
The very idea that such a widely dispersed group of territories as the British Empire could be moulded into an organic defence unit was only worth contemplating in an age when Britain was financially strong and uninvolved in Europe, and when sea power was predominant. By 1945 none of these preconditions applied.
The long struggle to stay uncommitted had ended: the defence of Europe had become the first priority. The signing of the NATO Treaty in 1949 - the most comprehensive military obligation ever undertaken by Britain, and one which reflected above all else the country's strategic with western Europe and strategic dependence upon the United States - was the formal confirmation of this priority.
The development of the Hydrogen bomb, of the intercontinental ballistic missile, and of the Russian military and technological capacity had rendered a small, densely populated area like the British Isles extremely vulnerable. In the 1930s it was feared that the bomber had done the same, until the invention of radar and the creation of the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters; but not it seems unlikely that there will be any defence at all for Britain against the horde of fast-travelling missiles with multiple warheads which Russia is able to deploy: about 10 Hydrogen bombs would be enough to reduce the country to cinders.
As Churchill put it, safety had to be based upon terror, and survival to rely upon a mutual fear of annihilation. So much has the nuclear deterrent neutralized the ability of either East or West to attack its foe without risk that a virtual strategical stalemate has been established.
"The nation needs to
be made conscious of its heritage and its dependence on sea power for its
daily bread and butter."
- B Schofield, "British Sea Power"
Britain's rulers can
neither pin their hopes upon the assumption that they will never be involved
in wars or confrontations in the future nor can they provide for armaments
to superpower level. With its relative military strength and role in world
affairs shrinking away, and with a too narrow population and industrial
base to allow it to provide its own security independently, it must join
with its allies to create a common defence... it was not the previous policy
of Britain, even in its prime, to presume that the rest of the world was
hostile and full of malevolent intent, against which it needed to be armed
to the teeth; nor should it now.
Nevertheless, in an unpredictable and ever-changing world in which nation states remain as disposed as ever to protect their 'vital interests' by force, it is equally clear that Britain requires a certain minimal level of armed strength: she cannot make up the difference between her peacetime and wartime requirements overnight.
"Whenever we look at
declining empires, we notice that their economies are generally faltering.
The economic difficultues of declining empires show striking resemblances.
All empires seem eventually to develop an intractable resistance fo the
change needed for the required growth of production. Then neither the needed
enterprise, nor the needed type of investment, nor the needed technological
change is forthcoming. Why? What we have to admit is that what appears
ex post as an obsolete behaviour pattern was, at an earlier stage in the
life of an empire, a successful way of doing things, of which the members
of the empire were proud... to change our way of working and doing business
implies a more general change of customs, attitudes, motivations and sets
of values which represent our cultural heritage... If the necessary change
does not take place and economic difficulties are allowed to grow, then
a cumulative process is bound to be set in motion that makes things progressively
worse. Decline enters then in its final, dramatic stage."
- Carlo Cipolla, "The Economic Decline of Empires"
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