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Books by John Barratt

Armada 1588

The Battle of Marston Moor

The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646

The First Battle of Newbury: 1643

Cavalier Generals

The Great Siege of Chester

The Battle for York: Marston Moor 1644

Cavalier Generals

Royal Navy - An Incomplete Victory
Royal Navy - An Incomplete Victory
by John Barratt

On 21 November 1918, as Germany's once-proud High Seas Fleet sailed into the British naval base of Scapa Flow to surrender, the Royal Navy seemed at the pinnacle of its long history. With 61 battleships to France's 40 and the U.S.A.'s 39, the British fleet appeared uncontestably to be the strongest in the world.

But appearances were deceptive. Even at the peak of its strength, the Royal Navy had found it difficult to provide adequate protection to all of Britain's world-wide possessions and interests, and Britain itself was increasingly dependent on seabourne imports, even for some essential foodstuffs and raw materials. But the huge financial costs of World War I had left Britain unable to maintain her existing levels of defence spending, with the result that defence planning was based on the assumption that no major war was likely to occur for ten years, a policy that was renewed annually into the 1930's.

Financial problems made Britain eager to sign the Naval Agreements of the Washington Conference of 1922, at which the Royal Navy's position as the largest fleet in the world was quietly abandoned. Agreement was reached on a 5.5.3 ratio of warships among the three leading naval powers of  Britain, U.S.A. and Japan. Also agreed was a ten-year halt in building new capital ships, with the exception of some already under construction. One result was that only two new battleships were added to the Royal Navy in the inter-war years, Nelson and Rodney , completed in 1927, whose effectiveness was reduced by their compliance with the Treaty limitations, renewed in the London Naval Conference of 1930.  Financial restrictions also resulted in a decline in the standards of training so that the Royal Navy was in danger of slipping back into its complacency of the long Victorian peace after the Napoleonic Wars.

The Road to War

In 1933 the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany was quickly seen as a potential threat to world peace, but although the "Ten Year Rule" was abandoned in 1934, it was expected to be 1943 before the Royal Navy would be equipped and ready for full-scale war. A massive building programme of twenty capital ships including 15 aircraft carriers was planned, but was never a realistic possibility, with British industry unable to cope with such demands. Even the five battleships of the King George V class which were laid down had only 14" guns, compared with vessels of 15" –18" being constructed abroad, though their armoured protection, (up to 15" on the sides and 6" on the decks) would help make them unexpectedly successful in combat. The British carrier program was equally disappointing. Instead of a planned total of 7 first class carriers available by 1939, the Royal Navy would actually have only 4 modern vessels and 3 which were obsolescent. And in this field the Navy lagged behind developments in the U.S.A. and Japan, particularly in aircraft and training. With increasingly aggressive tactics by Japan in the East, and  the menace of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in Europe, Britain was now facing the prospect of  a war on three fronts, in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific, and having to defend a far-flung Empire with only tiny naval forces of its own.. To meet this threat in the short term, the Navy could only modernize its World War I –vintage capital ships, and work on some, including the battlecruisers Hood and Repulse , would not be completed before the outbreak of war.

Other vessels were equally unsatisfactory. The Treaty tonnage limitations had meant that, apart from some older heavy cruisers, most modern vessels of this class carried only 6" guns. Similar problems plagued the destroyer force. The latest Tribal class, begun in 1937, carried only 4.7" guns compared with the "5.9" weapons of their German counterparts.

Potentially disastrous was the neglect of the threat from submarines, particularly to merchant shipping. It was assumed that detection equipment such as ASDIC had neutralised the U-boat in any future war. It was felt in the review of 1934 that no more than 100 escorts in all would be needed, so few new ones had been built by an essential conservative naval leadership, which had also largely ignored the potential role of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare.

The outbreak of war in 1939 left the Royal Navy already dangerously overstretched even faced only with Germany.  Though Britain might appear supreme, with 12 battleships and battlecruisers, 5 carriers and 53 cruisers, appearances were deceptive. Six battleships remained unmodernised; only the Hood and Renown were fast enough to catch the latest German ships, and the only modern carrier, Ark Royal still carried obsolete aircraft. The outlook, especially if the war spread, was potentially dire.

The Kriegsmarine Rebirth of a Navy

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 left the once proud German Navy a mere shadow of its former glory. Reduced basically to a Baltic defence force, with six old pre-Dreadnoughts and a small force of lighter vessels, and forbidden U-boats, Germany never again seemed likely to challenge for control of the seas.

But efforts to circumvent the harshest clauses of the peace settlement, and at least prepare for the possibility of a revived Navy began almost at once. German –controlled U-boat building facilities were set up in Holland, and submarines secretly constructed for Spain, Turkey and Finland, so keeping existing skills alive and helping in design improvements.  The Versailles Treaty allowed for the replacement (with a 10,000 ton limit) of existing vessels when they were more than twenty years old, and during the 1920's several new light cruisers and torpedo boats were added.

Even before the Nazi regime came to power, more ambitious plans were under development, including the construction of three panzerschiffes, "armoured vessels" of 10,000 tons, each carrying six 11" guns, and designed primarily as commerce raiders, able to outfight or outrun any likely opponents. Known to the Allies as "pocket battleships" they would prove their worth on the outbreak of war.  Secret work had also begun on the Type 1 coastal U-boats of 250 tons.

In 1935, Hitler and the British Government signed the fateful Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which allowed Germany, if her Government deemed it necessary, to build up to parity with the Royal Navy. It also allowed her submarines, and the secret U-boat flotilla was immediately unveiled.

The new opportunities for expansion caused some dissension in the German Naval Command. The newly designated head of the U-boat service, Karl Donitz, favoured a massive expansion of the Submarine force, with emphasis on the 500-ton Type VII, to give a greater number of vessels within the Trety limitations, rather than the larger 800-ton Type IX favoured by the High Command under Grand Admiral Erich Raeder.

Raeder himself, whilst not neglecting the possible role of the U-boat, was a "big ship" man. In this field, first fruits of the 1935 treaty were the the fast battleships Scharnhorst and Gniesenau. Classed by the British as battlecruisers, these 32,000 ton vessels, mounting nine 11" guns, and with a top speed of 31 knots, were a force to be reckoned with. Also laid down were several heavy cruisers and the great 35,000 ton eight 15" gunned battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz .

These were only intended as the first steps in the creation of a formidable new Kriegsmarine. In 1938 Hitler and Raeder drew up the massive expansion program known as the "Z Plan". This envisaged no war with Britain before 1945. By that date Raeder hoped to have a fleet including six 50,000 ton battleships, twelve 20,000 ton battle-cruisers, four carriers, a large number of light cruisers and destroyers and 250 U-boats. Donitz with typical realism felt this program to be completely unviable, making impossible demands on German manufacturing capacity, and with the problem result of a new naval arms race with Britain and France.

The premature outbreak of war in 1939 quickly led to the abandonment of the Z-Plan. Of the capital ships, work would only continue on the two battleships of the Bismarck class. Raeder felt that his largely modern, but greatly outnumbered surface fleet could only hope to "die with honor".  Much would rest on the U-boat arm, which began the war with only 57 operational vessels instead of the 300 hoped for by Donitz. Production priority was switched to them, but it remained to be seen whether enough could be built in time.

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Barnett, Correlli. Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War. 1991.

Hill, J.R. (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. 1995.

Ireland, Bernard. Jane's Naval History of World War II. 1998.

Ireland, Bernard and Eric Grove. Jane's War at Sea, 1897-1997: 100 years of Jane's Fighting Ships. 1998.

Jackson, Robert. The German Navy in World War II. 1999.

Showell, Jak P. Mallmann. The German Navy in World War II. 1979.

Stern, Robert C. Kriegsmarine: A Pictorial History of the German Navy, 1935-45. 1979.

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Copyright © 2002 John Barratt.

Written by John Barratt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact John Barratt at:

About the author:
John Barratt has authored many books to include: Armada 1588,  The Battle of Marston Moor, The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646, and Cavalier Generals.

Published online: 12/15/2002.
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