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