Castles of Steel

A couple of weeks ago, I finished Castles of Steel, Robert Massie’s history of the Great War at sea, and a follow-up to his earlier
Dreadnought, which chronicled the naval arms race between Britain and Germany up to the eve of the First World War. I’ve had bits of draft for this review lying around since then: it’s a fascinating book, colored by the personalities of the admirals and politicians (Churchill in particular), suspenseful in the description of the war’s sea battles, undergrid with the implications of command of the sea and Mahanian theories. I’ve sat on writing this review for a while, because the expanse of this book exceeds my ability to condense it in a reasonable way for a blog posting. It’s a terrific book, describing the last great acts of a form of warfare — big-gunned ships duelling in line of battle — soon to be made obsolete by emerging technologies, and the thinking, the mistakes and the luck surrounding these events.

The stage was set by the British-German naval race in the years leading up to the Great War. That race led to the two most powerful navies in the world confronting each over across the North Sea, concentrated in the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. At the core of each fleet were dozens of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers, the result of a technical and conceptual revolution from a mere nine years before: the dreadnoughts made all previous battleships obsolete, and were theoretically capable of sweeping the sea of lesser vessels. The fleet with the preponderance of dreadnoughts could dominate and sink the other fleet, and thereafter command the seas. Britain had such a preponderance at the beginning of the war.

How everything played out on this stage with all the players set, is a years-long combination of accident, personality and technology. The British public expected another Trafalger at the start of the war, a decisive sea battle that would sweep the German fleet from the oceans. This didn’t happen: new torpedo and mine technology made it too costly to sail dreadnoughts directly into Heligoland for the climatic battle, and the Germans were reluctant to come out to be sunk. And so the two fleets sat on opposite sides of the North Sea, training and waiting for Der Tag. In this stalemate, the British retained command of the sea everywhere but in the sea near Germany.

Command of the sea allowed the Allies greater flexibility. Granted, some of this flexibility lead to foolishness and lethal waste in the Dardanelles campaign (though the initial naval campaign had the possibility of breaking through into the Sea of Marmara and a bombardment of Constantinople, which would have forced Turkey out of the war and restored easy communications with Russia), but also allowed Britain to detach dreadnought battlecruisers to hunt down and sink a German squadron in the South Atlantic that had been stationed in the Far East when the war began (albeit after that squadron destroyed an outclassed British squadron at Coronel, a squadron which was fatally weakened by administrative snafus in the Admirality).

Perhaps most importantly, Britain’s preponderance of naval power and command of the sea allowed it to make mistakes without these mistakes being fatal. Germany’s inferior position forced it to rely on one of two strategies, either of which had to be executed perfectly for success.

The first was a surface strategy to lure an element of the Grand Fleet into an ambush and destroy it. A successful ambush would bring the fleets into rough parity, and the High Seas Fleet could then force an action. This was risky — even riskier than the Germans knew, because the British had cracked the naval codes — and the final attempt at this led to Jutland, where the German ambushers were in turn ambushed by the entire Grand Fleet. The High Seas Fleet barely escaped, due more to poor British communications and ammunition, weather and luck than anything else. While considered a German victory at the time, because the British lost more ships than the Germans, at the end of the day the Royal Navy still retained command of the sea.

The second was the U-boat strategy, where the Germans would wage unrestricted submarine warfare on the North Atlantic. The risk of this strategy was that the United States would enter the war before the British could be blockaded into submission (while the Americans were annoyed at the British for their blockade of Germany, the British strategy — again afforded by command of the sea — resulted in lost American money rather than lost American lives). And the Germans lost this gamble, the war and their empire.

Massie does a wonderful job with the personalities of the British commanders and politicians. As an American, I’m most familiar with Churchill as Prime Minister during World War 2, not as First Lord of the Admirality during the Great War. He was a double-edged sword then, brilliant but prone to mistakes. But, as Kitchner noted, he had the Fleet ready when the war started. There’s Beatty, commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron under Jellicoe and eventual commander of the Grand Fleet by war’s end. He was seen as the most Nelsonic of the British admirals of the time, very dashing. He also had a dark, self-serving side that wasn’t noted at the time, but once in command of the Fleet, he kept the priority of maintaining command of the sea over any sort of battle of eliminiation, no matter how desired by the British public.

And there’s Jellicoe himself, commander of the Grand Fleet from the start of the war and at Jutland, and who understood that the main strategic goal of the Royal Navy was to preserve the Fleet and retain command of the sea. Destruction of the High Seas Fleet wasn’t necessary. Actions for which he was criticized, in particular turning away from the fleeing High Seas Fleet at Jutland when threatened by torpedo attack, followed this line of thinking: as long as the Grand Fleet existed, the High Seas fleet could be bottled up and rendered ineffective. And at Jutland, he crossed Sheer’s T twice with the correct deployment of his battle line. Later as First Sea Lord, he had to confront unrestricted submarine warfare with limited resources, and eventually adopted the right mix of strategies and resources to let Britain survive and outlast the German effort.

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