Thursday, 29 September 2016

Fighting yesterday's battles

Generals, it’s said, tend to fight the last war. As do admirals. Why, politicians too, and even their supporters.

It’s true that admirals, in learning their craft, often have to follow successful examples from the past. However, that’s only useful if conditions have remained the same. Sadly, they seldom do.

That can even happen when people make a valiant effort to get ahead of the game. Take US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. He researched the subject extensively and concluded that control of the sea was vital in war. The best way of winning such control was through a decisive action between great fleets, in which one would comprehensively defeat the other (see Trafalgar, for instance).

Mahan was read around the world. British sailors devoured his work. The German Kaiser insisted his senior officers study him. Even distant Japan learned the lessons, and applied them in its comprehensive defeat of the Russian imperial fleet in 1905. 

The world’s then dominant naval power, Britain, decided to protect its position by equipping itself with huge battleships. They would be built of steel not wood and have massive guns mounted in turrets so they could be swung to fire in multiple directions. They would be called Dreadnoughts and the first, the original HMS Dreadnought, was launched in 1906. Other nations quickly followed suit, spending huge sums on their own giant battleships. They included the US, even though it had already been home to the event that would make these leviathans obsolete.

Dreadnoughts: already the past
And one plane: harbinger of the future
In 1903, the Wright Brothers gave the first demonstration of controlled, steered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. It wasn’t obvious at the time but the successors to that prototype, together with the submarine, would mark the catastrophic end of the time of the battleship – even though, at that stage, it hadn’t even begun.

The power of submarine warfare was shown in World War 1. Submarines were the unseen enemy that sank merchant as well as military ships, destroying a nation’s ability to defend its trade links, and therefore ultimately – especially for an island nation – its ability to survive at all.

Surface navies were sidelined. Britain and Germany fought only one major sea battle, at Jutland, and whatever Mahan may have thought, it proved indecisive. Instead, all the aspirants after Nelsonian glory in the Royal Navy had to resign themselves to a much less inspiring though far more necessary task: convoy protection. Keeping merchant ships afloat despite submarine depredations was the only way to keep vital supplies flowing.

Air power was dramatically demonstrated in World War 2. In just two waves of attack on 7 December 1941, Japanese carrier-borne aircraft destroyed the battleships of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Just three days later, Japanese planes sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and her accompanying battlecruiser Repulse. The US fleet had been caught by surprise and sunk at anchor but the British ships had been at sea and fully prepared. No clearer illustration could be provided that battleships weren’t the decisive force at sea so many had believed: planes were. The era of the aircraft carrier had dawned. Just five months after Pearl Harbor, the US repelled a Japanese invasion force, at the battle of the Coral Sea – the first naval engagement in which the opposing fleets never sighted each other, instead battling it out through their aircraft.

Meanwhile, two submarine wars were being fought. In the Atlantic, the German U-boat offensive came close to starving Britain, but was ultimately defeated and, just as at the Coral Sea, the key factor was airpower: long range planes based in Iceland attacked submarines on the surface and hit them before they could dive. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Royal Navy had to spend most of its energy in the inglorious chore of guarding convoys.

In the Pacific, on the other hand, US submarines emerged victorious. In the last few months of the war, not a single tanker reached Japan, denying industry and the military of the fuel oil vital to prosecute the war. Japan’s failure to foresee the importance of submarine warfare and lay on counter-measures cost it dear.

Not everyone was caught up in the past. Some, in the Japanese and US navies alike, realised that new conditions had created the need for new doctrines. But many clung on to the old notions, particularly in Japan, where hankering for the decisive naval engagement between great ships survived until the end of the War.

They were looking backwards. It didn’t work. It was the people who moved with the times who came out on top.

A lesson we still need to learn. In Britain today, we have a Right that looks back nostalgically to a time when the country bestrode the world alone and didn’t need to depend on others. And we have a Left that longs to fight the battles of the forties and fifties again, where our salvation apparently lay with state control, forgetting that when we actually tried that out, the State proved more stifling than inspiring.

Ah, well. Yesterday’s battles. So much more fun to fight, even though they don’t prepare us particularly well for the far more complex ones we face today.

As the champions of the battleship discovered.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe you have just described evolution?