Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

The Kriegsmarine and Compound War at Sea in WWII

By Matthew Connors

The campaign against Nazi Germany is often characterized as a land battle, but Hitler also lost the war by losing the sea. The former army corporal never truly grasped the importance of sea power and did not appropriately invest in Germany’s navy. Despite this, the Kriegsmarine nearly broke Britain through its use of aggressive surface action groups (SAGs) and irregular commerce raiders. The Kriegsmarine entered a war it was ill-suited for, well before it was prepared to fight, but by employing a form of maritime compound warfare it nearly disrupted Allied sea control which would have starved Britain and the Soviet Union of seaborne supply. Germany’s near victory demonstrates the potential of compound war at sea.

Qualifying Germany’s Naval Campaign as Compound War

In compound war a commander makes use of irregular units operating out of secure bases and augments them with the threat of conventional forces that can also take on irregular operational patterns.1 These irregular operations can force an opponent to disperse forces across a broad space to protect vital points and supply lines from irregular raiders and guerillas. This works in tandem with the presence of a regular conventional force which requires an adversary to also maintain a sizeable concentration of units to potentially counter a large-scale offensive, similar to a fleet-in-being.

This dilemma is precisely what makes it difficult to counter a compound campaign. On land, successful compound campaigns have been waged by Washington, Wellington, and Ho Chi Minh. At sea, compound war is less common, where fleets usually contest control of the sea through fleet combat actions dominated by regular units, or raid with irregulars and dispersed units. Yet, by employing a mix of both regular combatants and irregular raiders, the Kriegsmarine essentially waged compound war from 1939 to 1942.

Broadly defined, German naval forces can be split into regular and irregular combatants.2 Regular surface combatants could engage the enemy battle line or decimate lightly defended convoys. Germany’s surface striking forces mainly consisted of cruisers and battleships. These warships sowed chaos among the British Admiralty and forced the Royal Navy to cover multiple convoys and large areas while hunting small groups of German combatants.3 The presence of one pocket battleship or heavy cruiser in the Atlantic generated the need for convoys to have major surface ship escorts lest they fall prey to the big guns of a German warship. The high speeds and potent offensive capabilities of the German surface fleet could induce the Allies to scatter lightly protected convoys, which limited the damage done by heavy German combatants, but exposed them to the predations of German irregulars, submarines, and aircraft. The best example of this dual threat at work was the case of Convoy PQ17, an Arctic convoy traveling to the Soviet Union in 1942. The threat of a task force led by the German battleship Tirpitz forced the dispersion of the convoy’s ships and caused their subsequent destruction in detail by submarines and the Luftwaffe.4

German battleship Tirpitz firing during practice in 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)

Compound war at sea enhanced the psychological threats posed by German heavy surface ships and the German irregulars. By acting aggressively, the Kriegsmarine forced the British to deploy every available ship in their fleet to hunt for a handful of German surface ships.5 The Germans also conducted an extensive mining campaign that sought to deprive the British of their own shipping through destruction and neutral shipping through deterrence.The strain of constant operations and a shrinking merchant fleet was designed to cripple the Royal Navy and the commerce it protected, leaving the British Isles exposed and cut off.

The Regular Naval Threat: Surface Forces

In 1939 and 1940, aggressive commerce raiding in the Atlantic and Indian oceans by German heavy ships caused panic in Britain. The deployment of the Scheer, a pocket battleship, caused the Royal Navy to dispatch an aircraft carrier and six cruisers.7 A subsequent cruise by the battleships Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau sank 115,000 tons of shipping in two months, forced the deployment of the British home fleet, and managed to delay convoy sailings until battleship escorts could be found.8 In late 1941, plans were drafted for the operation of a surface action group out of Norway coupled with a commerce raiding deployment launched out of France. The surface action group would have drawn the British home fleet away while the raiders sowed chaos on Allied shipping.9 These operational plans and deployments typified the German approach and were designed to spread confusion and disruption through aggressive action.

German heavy ship operations featured regular units acting in irregular ways. While any individual platform could engage a rival, they did not have enough to risk themselves in regular combat. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine sought to fight on favorable terms against lightly guarded convoys. When the German forces found themselves outmatched by convoy escorts, they would still engage, but they would often avoid wholly committing themselves to fighting a well-guarded convoy.

Despite their irregular behavior, the German surface fleet’s potential as a regular naval threat remained potent, demonstrating the power of a fleet-in-being. The retention of a German fleet also provided the British with a strategic situation in line with the compound war concept. The continued existence of German heavy units required the Royal Navy to retain a home fleet sufficient to crush a concentrated German excursion while forcing it to also protect distant supply lines against commerce raiders, even after SAG deployments effectively ended in 1942. Even as the German surface fleet was either bottled up or sunk, it remained a real threat and a constant source of British dread. While auxiliary cruisers and submarines could be dealt with by destroyers and aircraft, German battleships and cruisers demanded strong attention from the Royal Navy.

At one point early in the war the Commander-in- Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Erich Raeder, asserted that the loss of a major German capital ship was not of major significance, especially if lost as a result of “bold action.”10 Audacity, aggression, and frequent operation on the part of the capital ships was part of cultivating their threat potential and stressing the Royal Navy’s resources and leadership. Their mere existence as a fleet in being posed a threat and required the British to divert resources from anti-submarine warfare operations and convoy escort duties. German SAG deployment arguably stalled Allied convoy departures and reduced British imports far more effectively than the grinding destruction of U-boat warfare.11 But after the battleship Bismarck was lost on a raiding mission in the Atlantic the utility of these heavy units shrank as Hitler became concerned about their potential loss and was unwilling to further risk them in combat.

The Irregular Subsurface Threat: Submarines

Admiral Karl Donitz, the head of the U-boat wing and eventual commander of the German Navy during WWII, conceived of a mathematical war against the British. The war of tonnage was designed to sink first British and French and later American merchant shipping quicker than it could be built. The resulting reduction in carrying capacity and goods would cripple Allied industry and force an armistice.12

The irregular component of the Kriegsmarine’s maritime compound warfare was executed by irregular surface and subsurface commerce raiders. These small, cheap platforms were designed to be stealthy enough to bypass the Allied naval blockade and cruise against allied shipping. Despite some false starts and early restrictions, unrestricted submarine warfare, once joined, proved theoretically possible. While British and American shipbuilding and convoy systems eventually overwhelmed the U-boat Arm’s destructive capacity, it wasn’t until 1943 that production outstripped destruction. 1943 also witnessed a sharp decrease in the U-boat’s efficacy as Allied convoy tactics, air-ASW, and the breaking of the Enigma codes proved increasingly effective at neutralizing U-boat attacks on convoys.13 The entry of the U.S. into the war and the increasing tactical effectiveness of ASW saved the Allies in the Atlantic.

However, had German force structure and strategy been built around commerce destruction by the time war broke out in 1939, it may have succeeded in breaking Britain.  German unrestricted submarine warfare proved ineffective, not because of tactical failings or strategic blunders by Admirals Raeder and Donitz, but because German industry, technology, and strategic cooperation proved inadequate. The incredibly small size of the U-boat Arm at the start of the war, only a sixth of the estimated force necessary to break the British, would grow as production gradually ramped up, but losses exceeded production until July of 1940. The force did not reach the necessary 300 boats until April of 1942, but only after the U.S. had entered the war and after tactical ASW was trending in favor of the allies.14

A rough estimate of the required tonnage destruction rate that could force British capitulation was 1,800,000 tons per quarter.15 Assuming a similar destruction rate, had the 82.5 deployed U-boats per quarter attained in 1944 been reflected in the average 1940 quarter, total tonnage destroyed could have amounted to 4,294,207 tons destroyed per quarter.16 Such a shock would have starved the British war machine and people. However, the German U-boat force of the first years of the war was, like the surface force, insufficient for the requirements of the German campaign.

U-boat strength vs. shipping strength during WWII. (Via HistoryNet)

The famed wolfpack was even temporarily abandoned after it became apparent that there were not enough U-boats to actively execute the tactic.17 As Allied ASW efforts improved, convoys became capable of inflicting heavy damage on their attackers and U-boats became increasingly subject to destruction en-route to the hunt. In 1943 the mid-Atlantic “air gap” was closed by escort carriers and Allied ASW units improved in both quantity and quality, reducing the U-boat’s destructive potential.18 The U-boat force peaked in early 1943, and production spiked to 79 new U-boats in 1944, but the window had passed.19

Organizationally, German U-boats were kept under relatively centralized control. Their limited ability to detect convoys and coordinate with other U-boats necessitated their direct operational command by Donitz and the U-boat branch in Wilhelmshaven.20 Wilhelmshaven would act as a central processing hub for data, either from submarines, aircraft, spies, or auxiliary cruisers and then concentrate a number of U-boats in the vicinity of a convoy. This concentration of boats would then attack at night on the surface where they had a speed advantage over allied merchantmen. However, the Naval Staff would also give orders directly to commanders, which complicated the command and control process.21 Tight control and cueing was necessary to ensure U-boats made contact with as many enemy ships as possible so as to maximize their statistical impact. This control, encrypted by the Enigma and Triton cyphers, was subject to Allied penetration. When this occurred, the Allies started avoiding submarines, reducing their efficacy.

One of the most crippling deficiencies of the German strategic approach resulted from the schizophrenic nature of Nazi high command. Historian Donald Steury assessed inter-service competition between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine as a major hinderance to joint operations against Allied shipping.22 Donitz himself points to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering’s staunch prohibition of an independent maritime airwing and bogarting of resources as having both limited the operational capabilities of the fleet in a broad sense and the size of the U-boat arm in particular.23 This resulted in minimal aerial scouting which frustrated Donitz’s early efforts to coordinate wolfpack operations and interdict Allied convoys.24

The Kriegsmarine had a sound strategic concept, but an inadequate force that lacked joint support. Despite their fearsome reputation, the U-boat was never properly employed to its full potential, and when coupled with Allied efforts this meant the effective defeat of Germany at sea.

U-boat efficacy by year.25

The Irregular Surface Threat: Auxiliary Cruisers

Auxiliary cruisers were launched to raid allied commerce but carried out a variety of support operations. These ships were converted merchantmen, altered to carry heavy armament and equipped with reconfigurable superstructures. Designed as stealth commerce raiders, there were only a few of these ships but they had an outsized impact. HSK-5, the Pinguin, sank or captured 154,619 tons of allied shipping, a total tonnage on par with some of the U-boat wing’s top performers. By comparison the U-boats sank approximately 11,023 tons per U-boat commissioned.26 Comparatively, the auxiliary cruisers did quite well, between the nine ships deployed from 1940-1943: 844,321 tons of allied shipping were destroyed, or 94,035 tons per auxiliary cruiser.27 Their effectiveness demonstrates the potential of such a vessel and role.

These irregular platforms had a mix of advantages and disadvantages. They were always exposed and subject to possible destruction by a curious surface combatant, the conversion process from merchant to warship was lengthy, and escaping into the Atlantic or Arctic oceans exposed them to detection and destruction by British forces. However, their high average destruction rate is reflective of their inherent capabilities. As surface vessels, they could make high speeds, could remain underway and operational for extremely long periods of time (622 days in the case of the Atlantis), and even could operate light aircraft.28 The ability to operate aircraft afforded them a degree of independence not found in the U-boats, and where the U-boat was heavily dependent on outside cueing for finding targets rather than its organic search capability. Because auxiliary cruisers could operate aircraft they could expand their personal search horizons, far superior to that of the relatively low conning tower of a submarine or its sonar.

Auxiliary German cruiser Kormoran (Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, the expanded crew size and cargo capacity allowed these stealth platforms to execute covert auxiliary tasks. Auxiliary cruisers mined Allied harbors all over the world, supported U-boats, and captured or destroyed Allied shipping. As surface ships, their interactions with enemy merchantmen allowed them to extend operations by refueling and resupplying from the prizes.29 These ships remained operational in the Atlantic slightly longer than the regular German fleet. However, like regular surface raiders, these platforms became increasingly difficult to deploy and the last attempt at a breakout failed in February of 1943.30 The auxiliary cruiser was an innovative and potent tool undercut by a lack of investment and the later conservativism of the German fleet. Much like the submarine, the auxiliary cruiser was doomed by a profound lack of investment in the German fleet and Hitler’s naval hesitance.

German Naval Force Structure: Idealism at the Cost of Realism

Admiral Raeder, who led the Kriegsmarine from 1928 to 1943, was mostly responsible for the reconstruction of the German fleet in the interwar period.31 After Hitler seized power naval building accelerated. Light cruisers, heavy cruisers, battlecruisers, and two battleships were constructed.32 However, Raeder’s Plan Z shipbuilding program was designed to build a fleet optimized for a compound campaign against the British. The Plan Z fleet centered on a robust home fleet, several striking forces, and commerce raiders. The home fleet would be strong enough to challenge the British home fleet, thus demanding the retention of the bulk of the Royal Navy’s capital ships in home waters, while the striking forces and commerce raiders starved the British by crushing convoys and sinking lone merchants. However, Plan Z required a longer lead time than a competing fleet design plan which would have consisted of a large submarine branch and multiple pocket battleships.

Operating under the assumption that hostilities would not commence until the mid-1940s, the Germans selected Plan Z. However, the decision to launch WWII by invading Poland in early 1939 took the naval staff almost entirely by surprise. The invasion launched the Kriegsmarine into war prematurely and well before the Plan Z buildup could be completed.33

Losses and an increasing hesitancy on the part of Hitler to risk capital ships eventually reduced the potency of the German surface force and increased the Kriegsmarine’s reliance on submarines.34 However, the German Navy started the war with an insufficient submarine fleet of only 57 boats, when an estimated 300 were required for war with Britain.35 Hitler’s hesitance and ignorance of the sea kept the Kriegsmarine weak, when he lost his nerve in 1942, he constrained his surface navy which then became mostly irrelevant, leaving his inadequate submarine force to carry on what was becoming a losing naval campaign.

Conclusion

Early British deficiencies gave the Kriegsmarine a chance at victory. British ASDIC (active sonar) often performed poorly; the convoy system was initially resisted, and British shipbuilding was not able to catch up to the rate of destruction until 1943.36 The cancellation of the regular surface campaign in the Atlantic in late 1941 was followed by an uptick in overall British imports, despite the increase in U-boat sinkings in 1942.37 Raeder and Donitz had a winning strategic concept but an inadequate force. While compound threats are typically potent, the Kriegsmarine was unable to execute a consistent, effective campaign. As ‘Fortress Europe’ began to crumble, the effectiveness of the German maritime campaign plummeted further still. Ultimately, Hitler’s strategic failings and the small size of the German fleet at the beginning of the war caused the Kriegsmarine’s failure.

The Kriegsmarine’s shortcomings were matched with Allied successes. Cracking Enigma, the reimplementation of the convoy system, the implementation of air-based ASW, and general improvements in ASW operations saved the British merchant from the U-boat, while brave men in steel ships defeated the big guns of Hitler’s surface fleet. A future war at sea against a compound threat will require much of the same: superb code breakers, clever screen commanders, effective tactics, and brave Sailors willing to grapple with any threat.

Lieutenant Matthew Conners is a 2012 graduate of the Naval Academy and a Surface Warfare Officer. He has served in USS Hopper (DDG 70) as Repair Officer and  USS Chung Hoon (DDG 93) as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer. He is also the recipient of the Naval Postgraduate School’s 2018 Liskin Award for excellence in National Security Studies. He graduated from the Naval Postgraduate school in 2018 with a Master of Arts in Security Studies. He is stationed in San Diego at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.

References

[1] Thomas Huber, Compound Warfare; That Fatal Knot, (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2002) https://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/compound_warfare.pdf vii.

[2] There were no German naval aviation assets. Gronning quickly appropriated all related maritime aircraft to the Luftwaffe and the two German aircraft carriers under construction were never completed.

Eric Raeder, My Life, trans. Henry Drexel, (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1960), 154.

Robert Jackson, Kriegsmarine; The illustrated History of the German Navy in WWII, (London, Aber’s Books ltd 2001), 24.

[3] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 23.

[4] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 116.

[5] Terry Hughes and John Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, (New York, The Dial Press 1977), 20.

[6] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 49.

[7] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 123.

[8] Ibid, 125.

[9] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83.

[10] Cajus Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, (Garden City, Doubleday and Company 1974), 141.

[11] Sturey, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83. 

[12] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 38-52.

[13] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 665, 667.

Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304, 305.

[14] Hughes and Costello, Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[15] A 1917 Imperial naval staff estimate. In Steury, The German Naval Offensive, 93.

[16] Based on a rate of 52,051 tons per quarter per U-boat deployed at a rate of 82.5 U-boats deployed in 1944. Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[17] Ibid, 49.

Hessler, Gunter, The U-boat War in the Atlantic, 1939-1945: German Naval History, (Great Britain, Ministry of Defense 1989), 12.

[18] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 48-55.

[19] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[20] Ibid, 2.

[21] Hessler, The U-Boat war in the Atlantic, 9.

[22] Ibid, 91.

[23] Karl Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten years and Twenty days, (Cleveland, World Publishing Company 1959) 132-133.

[24] Doenitz, 133-134.

[25]Ibid.

[26] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

This includes U-boats launched after the bulk of Allied ASW efforts began to take effect.

[27] Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, 381.

[28] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69.

[29] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69-77.

[30] Ibid, 77.

[31] Raeder, My Life, 138-139.

[32] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 21-23.

[33] Jurgen Rohwer, “Codes and Ciphers: Radio Communication and Intelligence,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 38-38.

[34] Donald Steury, “The Character of the German Naval Offensive: October 1940-June 1941,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 81.

[35] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed.” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 www.jstor.org/stable/20030803 665, 667.

[36] Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” 665-667.

[37] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 84-87.

Featured Image: German battleship Bismarck in the Baltic Sea in May 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)

The Battle of the Atlantic: Command of the Seas in a War of Attrition

This article originally featured in The Submarine Review and is republished with permission.

By Ryan Hilger

Captain Gallery picked up the radio: “Ride ’em cowboy.” Lieutenant David’s boarding party worked quickly to clear the submarine and make up Pillsbury‘s towline, despite the rudder being jammed hard over and the submarine still making ten knots. Chatelain and Jenks broke off to pick up survivors. Commander Trosino, Guadalcanal‘s Chief Engineer, and another boarding party made for the submarine to begin salvage efforts. Flooded compartments and potential booby traps slowed repair efforts. Pillsbury radioed back that the destroyer didn’t have the power to maintain the tow and keep the submarine afloat. Gallery ordered Guadalcanal into position, taking up the tow. After a challenging several days, U-505 was turned over to Naval Operating Base Bermuda for evaluation.1 The capture of U-505 on June 4th, 1944 was the zenith of Allied anti-submarine warfare efforts, indicating that German submarines would not play a decisive role in what became the final year of the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic spanned the entire duration of the war, stressing the endurance and resourcefulness of all involved, from fleet commanders to heads of state to cryptographers to ordinary seamen in anti-submarine trawlers and U-boats everywhere. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, worth quoting at length here, frames the issue:

“The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. Invasion, I thought, even before the air battle, would fail. After the air victory it was a good battle for us. We could drown and kill this horrible foe in circumstances favourable to us, and, as he evidently realised, bad for him. It was the kind of battle which, in the cruel conditions of war, one ought to be content to fight. But now our life-line, even across the broad oceans, and especially in the entrances to the Island, was endangered. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.2           

This unforgiving war at sea challenged the conventions of Mahan and Corbett on the meaning of sea control and, in that philosophical struggle, informs strategic thought as we face asymmetric threats abroad. Several anecdotes from this long, grinding campaign provide insights as American naval forces grapple with the nascent possibility of a modern, protracted war of attrition at sea.

The Essentiality of War Games

Convoys HX-229 and SC-122 were eastbound for Britain. Their air cover had lapsed until the Liberator squadron in Iceland could reach them. The base courses of the convoys were continually altered around wolfpack locations revealed by Ultra, the Allied radio intercept and cryptanalysis program.3 But this time, the routings had placed them on a collision course with each other and three wolfpacks, the U-boats still high after battering SC-121 and HX-228 the day prior. On March 16th, 1943, they “hurled themselves like wolves first on the Halifax convoy, then on the Sydney convoy as soon as it was sighted, and finally on the great combined mass of ships.”4 38 U-boats exploited the next three days, relentlessly attacking day and night, sinking 21 of 61 ships.

The massacre of convoys SC-122 and HX-229 began twenty-five years prior to the coup de main, southeast of Sicily with then Lieutenant Commander Karl Doenitz in UB-68 and his near death at the hands of a British warship escorting a convoy just out of the Suez Canal. UB-68 was hit, but managed to blow her ballast tanks to the surface, where the submarine sank beneath him, the convoy continuing on to Britain unmolested. At that moment, floating in the warm Mediterranean waters with his lifejacket and a piece of salvaged cork, Doenitz recalls,

“That last night, however, had taught me a lesson as regards basic principles. A U-boat attacking a convoy on the surface and under cover of darkness, I realized, stood very good prospects of success. The greater number of U-boats that could be brought simultaneously into the attack, the more favorable would become the opportunities offered to each individual attacker.”5

The seed of wolfpack tactics had been planted. Several other German submariners would come to the same conclusion independently during the Great War, but none seemed to gain traction with the German High Command. Revolutions do not come about overnight.

Doenitz would rise slowly during the interwar years, eventually being selected to take over the first reformed U-Boat Flotilla in 1935. He found like-minded officers under his command and proceeded to develop cooperative tactics. In 1937, during the German Armed Forces Maneuvers, U-boats operated for the first time together, tasked to “locate, concentrate and attack an enemy formation and convoy somewhere on the high seas to the north of the coasts of Pomerania and West and East Prussia.”6 The operation was wildly successful, and U-Boat Command continued with large-scale exercises into 1939, including under the review of Admiral Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, until the Second World War started a few months later. The exercises provided Doenitz with the opportunity to further refine the span of control, communications, and tactics the U-boats would need in combat to bring wolfpacks to their highest potency.

Interestingly, Doenitz reveals that the British were caught largely unaware in the first year and a half of the war that the Germans were employing cooperative tactics against their convoys. Citing Captain Stephen Roskill, the eminent British naval historian, Doenitz writes,                       

“But as the numbers controlled by Admiral Doenitz increased, he was able to introduce attacks by several U-boats working together…The change caught us unawares…but the Development was, from the British point of view, full of the most serious implications since the enemy had adopted a form of attack which we had not foreseen and against which neither tactical nor technical countermeasures had been prepared.”7

This is shocking revelation for the preeminent Navy in the world at the outbreak of the war. The roots of this negligence, Roskill continues, are found in the interwar period:

“When British naval training and thinking in the years between the wars are reviewed, it seems that both were concentrated on the conduct of surface ships in action with similar enemy units and that the defence was also considered chiefly from the point of view of attack by enemy surface units.”8

Doenitz theorizes that the invention of active sonar lulled the British into thinking that oceans had been made transparent and that the submarine became instantly irrelevant.9 In conjunction with the technological advances, the development of wolfpack tactics also reveals the grave threat presented by sclerotic British thinking during peacetime. The bold and decentralized command of the Nelsonian navy had slowly devolved over a century into untested, theoretical doctrine, the fleet “[enjoying] a peace routine and that its title of Mistress of the Seas [not having been] seriously challenged.”10 Arthur Marder relates the state of the Royal Navy in 1897 prior to the reforms of Admiral Jackie Fisher: “the British Navy at the end of the nineteenth century, numerically a very imposing force, was a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organism.”11 The ramifications of stultified strategic thought and the unacknowledged strategic draw at Jutland in 1916 further ossified British tactical development for the next twenty years.12 Doenitz, on the other hand, presents a case for the importance of war games for tactical and operational developments, and the consequences for the navies that spend the peacetime steaming around the world to “show the flag,” fueled by achievements of past wars while the guns rust from lack of meaningful combat exercises. 

Tactical Innovation and Credulity in Technology

In the Clausewitzian sense, the nature of the Battle of the Atlantic changed little over the course of the war. The merchant ships plodded along the routes provided by the Allied convoy routing commands, ever in existential peril, while the U-boats prowled about the waves in search of prey. However, a closer examination of the operational level of war provides a plethora of examples of technical innovation—focusing on the development of active sonar here—the first applications of operations research, and a clear warning about immature faith in technological advancements without any corresponding evidence of efficacy beyond first principles or development of doctrinal employment.13

The first hydrophones were fitted to warships for submarine detection as early as 1915, but provided such inaccurate bearings, and without a suitable close attack weapon, to render then operationally irrelevant. In September 1918, the British formed a scientific committee, the Anti-Submarine Division International Committee (Asdic) to develop echo-ranging methods to fix a submarine’s position. The system was fielded shortly before the war ended in 1918 and continued to be developed during the interwar years, now able to provide both bearing and range.14 Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalls his experience with the refined Asdic sets:

“On June 15, 1938, the First Sea Lord took me down to Portland to show me the Asdics [italics original]… Standing on the bridge of the destroyer which was using the Asdic, with another destroyer half a mile away, in constant intercourse, I could see and hear the whole process, which was the Sacred Treasure of the Admiralty, and in the culture of which for a whole generation they had faithfully preserved.”15

The British began World War II with 220 sets installed on various small combatants and trawlers, with many more sets waiting for ships to install them on—Churchill’s maritime building program would take a year or two more to reach fruition.16 Of note, Churchill does not record the doctrinal development of anti-submarine warfare in the same way that Doenitz discussed the refinement of tactical and operational doctrine for submarine wolfpacks. Doenitz records in his Memoirs the seeming blind faith by the British that the new technology would render submarines useless as a weapon of war: “in 1937 the Admiralty reported to the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee that ‘the U-boat will never again be capable of confronting us with the problem with which we found ourselves faced in 1917.”17 Churchill, at the outbreak of the war, agreed:

“I had accepted too readily when out of office the Admiralty view of the extent to which the submarine had been mastered. Whilst the technical efficiency of the Asdic apparatus was proved in many early encounters with U-boats, our anti-U-boat resources were far too limited to prevent our suffering serious losses.”18

This failure to grasp the limitations of the new technology, both in technical performance and the employment of it, required a rapid development program and the founding of operations research.19

The British anti-submarine forces had dwindled in the interwar period to less than ten percent of the forces available to the Allies at the signing of the Armistice in Versailles.20 The shortage would cost them dearly in operational tempo and merchant shipping lost while waiting for the Americans to enter the war or for their own shipbuilding program to start delivering. Even with Asdics on their warships, merchant shipping losses totaled more than 900 ships and 4,000,000 tons by the end of 1940.21 Yet a significant inventory of Asdics still sat on shelves, waiting for ships to enter service, and in that lies another lesson for gaining superiority in the war of attrition—cooperation with allies.

Allies and the Fielding of Capabilities

In May 1940, Churchill first laid bare the British needs to President Roosevelt: “All I ask now is that you should proclaim non-belligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are, first of all, the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers to bridge the gap…”22 The use of mothballed destroyers seems a logical and prudent policy to pursue, but the American political scene then, records Samuel Eliot Morison, was still rooted in quasi-pacifism.23 It would take President Roosevelt a great deal of time and political capital to secure the Lend-Lease program.

Churchill pressed again several months later, indicating how their mutual, albeit still private, goals could be served: “We can fit [the older destroyers] very rapidly with our Asdics, and they will bridge the gap of six months before our war-time new construction comes into play.”24 This string of discussion would continue between Roosevelt and Churchill for the remainder of 1940, even with the offer of British crews to man and transport the destroyers across the Atlantic. President Roosevelt would eventually find a loophole in the Neutrality Act of 1939 and sign a bilateral agreement with Churchill on September 2, 1940, on the trade of fifty older American destroyers for 99-year leases for naval bases from Great Britain. British sailors would bring the American ships back to life and take the fight to their common enemy in a shining example of the importance of bringing capabilities rapidly to bear in a war of attrition to gain a tactical edge.

The Unbiased Tyranny of Geography

It is rare for terrain in war to be so unfavorable to the contesting parties. Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz speak of the ground as preferential to a particular side depending on the value accorded to it.26 The sea, however, retains the ability to be the great equalizer, especially in the modern, globalized era, while simultaneously being supremely cruel to those who lose their respect for it. The Atlantic Ocean and the martial contest for it offered different challenges for all involved—British, German, and American. For Britain, the sea was survival. For Germany, the sea presented the longest contiguous battlefront. For the Americans, the sea represented the lifeline to Britain, under constant threat which, for the majority of the war, they lacked the necessary escorts to fully protect. Not until the summer of 1943 did the Allies begin to achieve sea control. Corbett puts this battle into theoretical prospective:

“By general and permanent control [of the sea] we do not mean that the enemy can do nothing, but that he cannot interfere with out maritime trade and overseas operations so seriously as to affect the issue of the war, and that he cannot carry on his own trade and operations except at such risk and hazard as to remove them from the field of practical strategy.”27

Corbett, vice Mahan, defines the heart of the struggle: “By occupying her maritime in which they terminate we destroy the national life afloat, and thereby check the vitality of that life ashore so far as the one is dependent on the other.”28 Britain needed the sea for survival and Germany rightly discerned that the sea was the key to Britain’s destruction. Thus, the Battle of the Atlantic was not simply another battle on the road to victory, but rather an extended campaign at the operational level of war, and a matter of national strategic policy for all contestants.

Churchill, never shy at communicating the necessity of commerce to the survival of Britain, again indicates the British national policy to President Roosevelt: “North Atlantic transport remains the prime anxiety… I am sorry about [stopping food subsidies to Eire], but we must think of our own self-preservation, and use for vital purposes our own tonnage brought in through so many perils.”29 The American policy, still protected by pre-war isolationist policies, took more time to develop. Admiral Stark, then the Chief of Naval Operations, submitted his thoughts on American grand strategy to Navy Secretary Knox in late 1940: “Our major national objectives in the immediate future might be states as preservation of the territorial, economic, and ideological integrity of the United States…the preservation of the disruption of the British Empire with all that such consummation implies…”30 These views would be fully developed and codified in the American-British Conversation (ABC) agreements, first completed in March 1941.

In the years prior to the war, Germany began finalizing how they would structure the Navy to strangle the British islands. Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, saw the unfolding situation plainly: “Britain imported fifty million tons of goods annually and her very existence depended on the keeping open of her supply lines. An effective attack on Britain’s oversea supplies therefore had to be the main aim of any German naval building programme.”31 In contrast, Raeder believed that “[as] for our surface forces, they were so inferior to the enemy in strength and numbers that about all they could hope to do was go down fighting.”32 Raeder has grasped the four Clausewitizan factors of success in war.33 This attitude shaped the shipbuilding program in the final years of prior to the war, resulting in Germany beginning the war with near four times as many submarines as all surface ships combined.34 Geography shaped the battle, forcing widely distributed forces against a highly distributed threat.

For Germany, though, the execution of the maritime strategy would be anything but trivial.35 The development of wolfpack tactics and the technological advances added the efforts at the tactical and operational levels, but the distances involved pressed the strategy to its limits. Due to distance, geographic positioning, maintenance, and training cycles, only eight of the 57 U-boats in commission could be engaged in the Atlantic for the first year of the war. The early fall of France and capture of the French ports on the Bay of Biscay provided a significant improvement, both in geographic position as well as the addition of dockyards and repair facilities. Doenitz summed up the strategic value of this gain:

“Before July 1940 the U-boats had to make a voyage of 450 miles through the North Sea and round the north of Great Britain to reach the Atlantic. Now they were saving something like a week on each patrol and were thus able to stay considerably longer in the actual area of operations. This fact, in its turn, added to the total number of U-boats actively engaged against the enemy. It was thanks to these direct efforts of the possession of the Biscay bases….”36

The improvement in position, combined withe the building program, allowed Germany to eventually keep nearly one hundred U-boats at sea.

Control of the Sea

Captain Roskill records that the utter destruction of HX-229 and SC-122 “made a profound impression upon the British Admiralty, which later recorded that ‘the Germans never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March 1943.'”37  Yet the German euphoria and Allied dejection would decisively reverse in the subsequent two months as the Allies shifted the balance of power with the introduction of additional long-range aircraft. Roskill recalls,

“[A] sweeping victory was gained in April and May; and of the 56 U-boats sunk in those two months 36 were destroyed by ships and aircraft operating as convoy escorts or in support of convoys. Doenitz thereupon abandoned the battle of the convoy routes. The reason was, so he said, that his losses had increased to about one-third of all the submarines at sea— losses much too high.”38

Doenitz and his submarines would never again gain the upper hand.

The Allies would subsequently introduce greater measures to fight the U-boat menace, including the introduction of the hunter-killer groups like the one that captured U-505. The industrial machine in both Britain and the United States would pick up steam, churning out Liberty ships every 42 days and escorts even more rapidly, turning the tide of the battle through sheer numbers.39 Control of the sea in the Corbettian sense would be achieved, but that control did not mean that hostilities would cease—quite the contrary. Both sides would continue to feed grist to the millstone until the end of the war; each side would lose roughly 30,000 Sailors or airmen.40 Tenuous control at best.

The Battle of the Atlantic contains many more lessons for control of the sea in a war of attrition.41 But the essence of the battle should alert strategists to the necessity of exercises in merging revolutionary technologies into new doctrine and the need to deploy capabilities, not just platforms. Above all, strategists need to know that establishing and maintaining maritime superiority in today’s environment, as in the Battle of the Atlantic, is more than the capacity to destroy the enemy in a fleet action—the Battle of the Atlantic repudiated Mahan. Captain Wayne Hughes provides the simple summation: “Naval battle is attrition centered. Victory by maneuver warfare may work on land but it does not at sea. At sea, first effective attack is the aim of every tactical commander.”42 An enemy can fight a war of attrition at sea, a guerre de course in which he has many advantages and vulnerabilities. Force composition cannot be determined without due regard for the economic implications of the naval role in national strategy. Commanders must continue to innovate, experiment with new technologies, and evolve how they wage war at all levels. Failure to stay abreast of technology or properly incorporate it will engender strategic surprise on the battlefield, thus driving your forces from the sea, or to the bottom of it.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is an Engineering Duty Officer and former submariner. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

1. “Oral History-Battle of the Atlantic. Recollections of Captain Daniel V. Gallery, USN, commander of USS Guadalcanal Task Group concerning the capture of German submarine U-505 on 4 June 1944,” Naval History and Heritage Command, August 2, 2002, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/oral-histories/wwii/recollections-of-captain-daniel-v-gallery.html

2. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1949, p. 529.

3. The Ultra program was the highly secretive cryptanalysis efforts to break German radio encryption. See also “Ultra and the Battle of the Atlantic.” National Security Agency. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/cryptologic-spectrum/assets/files/Ultra.pdf. Accessed on February 6, 2017.

4. Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Boston, MA: De Capo Press, 1997, p. 329.

5. Ibid, p. 4.

6. Ibid, p. 21.

7.  Ibid, p. 22.

8. Ibid, p. 23.

9.  Ibid.

10. Marder, Arthur. “Admiral Sir John Fisher: A Reappraisal.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1942, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1942-03/admiral-sir-john-fisher-reappraisal.

11. Ibid. 

12. See also: Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013 and Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Chapters 2 and 3 of Hughes, in particular, have a concise discussion of this topic.

13. This essay focuses on the development of active sonar, but the list can certainly be expanded to include technological developments on both sides: radio direction finding, acoustic torpedoes, an air induction mast, or snorkel, the mathematically-based attack tactics for bombers and depth charging, and the prodigious industrial efforts of the American shipbuilding industry to churn out the Liberty ships and destroyer escorts. A myriad of resources provide greater information on these individual developments.

14. Sternhell, Charles M. and Alan M. Thorndike. “Antisubmarine Warfare in World War II.” Operations Evaluation Group, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington D.C., 1946, p. 2. 

15. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Volume I: The Gathering Storm. London: Cassell & Co, Ltd., 1948, pp. 127-8.

16. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

17. Doenitz, p. 23.

18. Churchill, p. 325.

19. See Part II of Sternhell and Thorndike for an excellent exposition on the various scientific approaches to anti-submarine warfare during the Battle of the Atlantic. This section truly summarizes the first operational application of operations research, at the time a nascent field. See also: Koopman, B. O. Search and Screening: General Principles with Historical Applications. New York, NY: Pergamon Press, 1980. Budiansky, Stephen. Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boat and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013.

20. Sternhell and Thorndike, p. 2.

21. Churchill, p. 569 and Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 639.

22. Churchill, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p. 23.

23. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I:  The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 33.  

24. Churchill, p. 117.

25. Ibid, p. 361.

26. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Edited by Basil Liddell Hart, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 114-115.

 Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 345.

27. Corbett, Julian S. Principles of Maritime Strategy. Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2004. pp. 102-3.

28.  Ibid, p. 91.

29. Churchill, Volume I, pp. 535-6.

30. Morison, p. 42.

31. Raeder, Erich. Struggle for the Sea. London: William Kimber and Co. Ltd., 1959, p. 128.

32. Ibid, p. 136.

33. Clausewitz, p. 261.

34. Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015, p. 34.

35. See also: Showell, Jak Mallmann. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945. Gloucestrshire: The History Press, 2015. This collection comprises the surviving documents that Doenitz ordered preserved, not destroyed, when he headed the German government at the end of the war. The volume shows the difficulties that the German Navy faced in executing the naval component of German national strategy given Hitler’s general disposition toward ground forces and the influence of Hermann Goering and the German Air Force.

36. Doenitz, p. 112.

37. Ibid, p. 329.

38. Roskill, Stephen. “CAPROS not Convoy: Counterattack and Destroy!” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1956, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1956-10/capros-not-convoy-counterattack-and-destroy.

39. Winston, George. “The Amazing Achievement of Baltimore’s Shipyards: One Liberty Ship Every 42 Days.” War History Online. November 24, 2015. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/military-vehicle-news/baltimores-liberty-ship-legacy.html

40. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, p. 363.

41. See also: Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume X:  The Battle of the Atlantic Won, May 1943 – May 1945. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001, pp. 361-4. Here Morison draws conclusions about the American role in the battle, which he generally confines to the development and deployment escort carrier groups. He writes that the British and Canadian forces were on the whole more skilled and experienced than American forces, and that British and Canadian forces did more to contribute to victory in the Atlantic than did the United States. His full conclusions about the battle are worthy fodder for strategists to consider.

42. Hughes, Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval

Featured Image: Colorized photo of German U-boats. (Public Domain)

British Amphibious Operations in Egypt, 1801: A JP 3-02 Perspective, Pt. 2

Read Part One of this two-part series here.

By Jason Lancaster

Action

“The Action Phase is the period from the arrival of the amphibious force in the operational area, through the accomplishment of the mission and the termination of the amphibious operation.” JP 3-02

At 2 am, 5,500 troops climbed down into their boats to begin the assault on the French-held Aboukir Peninsula in 1801. Some of the boats had to row six miles to form up, delaying the assault from dawn until almost 9 am. As the boats approached the beach they could see the French troops and artillery in the sand dunes to their front, and artillery from the fort to their right started to fire. Embarked in one of the boats for the assault was Lieutenant Aeneas Anderson who stated, “Never was there a more trying moment.” As the troops crammed into the heavily loaded landing craft were vulnerable to fire the French managed to sink several craft. Some of the men in the boats were killed by round shot or drowning, while many were rescued from the water by boats tasked with SAR.1 Naval gunfire support was provided by Royal Navy bomb vessels Tartarus and Fury, two gunboats, and three armed launches.2 These vessels took station on the flanks and supported the landings by attacking Aboukir Castle on the right flank.

As the initial wave landed they formed up in the water. Soldiers of the 40th and 23rd Regiments charged ahead to capture the high sand dune in their front. On the left, 200 French cavalry charged the Coldstream Guard still forming up in knee-deep water, but the cavalry were repulsed by a well-timed volley fired by the 48th. The sharp action of twenty minutes secured a British beachhead at Aboukir. In a span of 5 minutes the British had landed 5,000 troops and formed for battle on a beach. After 15 minutes the British had driven off entrenched French forces and captured six cannons.3

British casualties had been heavy. Out of an initial landing force of 5,000, the Royal Navy had lost 97 officers and men killed or wounded, while the army had lost 625 killed, wounded, or missing and presumed drowned.4 Despite the heavy losses, British morale soared. General Menou had so doubted the ability of the British to establish a beachhead that he had only sent a detachment of 2,000 to defend against the landing instead of a larger force. French prisoners stated, “They had no fear that a landing could succeed.”5 General Menou expected the French army would have to fight on three fronts in Egypt. The army continued to fight a numerically superior yet qualitatively inferior Ottoman army east of Suez. The French expected this British force to land somewhere near Alexandria, and for another British force from India to land somewhere on the Red Sea coast. The British exploited Lake Aboukir and Aboukir Bay as a highway transporting water, supplies, and armed launches to provide naval gunfire support to the forward edge of battle. With the beachhead secured, General Abercromby’s forces advanced from Aboukir toward Alexandria.

 On the 13th of March, the French attacked the British at Mandara, but well-positioned British troops repulsed the French. After two British victories, the local Arabs began to sell provisions to the army, reducing the reliance on provisions provided from the ships.6

On the 21st of March the French attacked again. General Abercrombie, leader of the British expeditionary force, was mortally wounded in the battle and died aboard the flagship instructing his staff to return the soldier’s blanket he was carried to the ship in. The French retired into the city of Alexandria. The British then left a force to besiege the city while another force pressed up the Nile to capture Cairo and link up with soldiers from India. On 16 August, Captain Cochrane and General Coote executed a second landing west of Alexandria to completely surround the city. On 29 August, 1801, General Menou’s besieged army surrendered.    

Command and Control

Modern U.S. amphibious doctrine supports a Commander, Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and a Commander, Landing Force. Both commanders will draft an establishing directive to outline priorities and define who will be the supported and supporting commander throughout the phases of the operation. Throughout an amphibious operation the supported commander will change based on what is going on. For example, during an amphibious assault, the CATF will remain the supported commander until the CLF has established a defensible beachhead ashore.7 The CLF will then assume the role of supported commander and the CATF will continue to support, typically with logistics until relieved.

Throughout this campaign, there was less CATF/CLF coordination than desired. The first objective of the expedition was to capture the Spanish fleet at anchor in Cadiz. Despite both commanders’ amphibious experience the objective was not met. Lord Keith dithered over whether to support the landings or not, and he “could not be answerable for the winds.”8 If winds were from the southwest the fleet would be scattered. Unlike in modern doctrine where the CATF is the supported commander until the CLF has a defendable beachhead, Lord Keith felt his duty and responsibility done once the fleet was anchored in the correct operational area. This lack of interest meant that on the scheduled day of the landings there was both a shortage of landing craft and massive confusion when those craft did not go to the correct ships to pick up troops. Eventually, the decision was made to cancel those landings.9

The day after the landings were scheduled to happen, the southwest winds blew the fleet off Cadiz. If the landing force had been caught half ashore and half at sea, the landing force ashore would have been destroyed and the Egyptian campaign possibly never would have commenced. The lack of proper planning, of rehearsals, and Lord Keith’s continued unwillingness to make a decision about the landing created great tension between the army and the navy. Resentment among the army was so high that General Abercromby wrote to Secretary Dundas. Lord Keith received a letter from the First Sea Lord suggesting he remain in Gibraltar, and let another admiral oversee the Egyptian expedition.10 Good natured General Abercromby understood that part of his role as CLF was to calm the waters between the landing force and the naval force to ensure unity of effort. Today, the CATF and CLF embark aboard the same ship, however General Abercromby and Lord Keith were embarked on separate ships, and the First Sea Lord insinuated that this was the cause of tension between the two. Space aboard ship was the likely culprit in why the two commanders were embarked separately.

Lord Keith’s top priority was the location of the French fleet, and whether the French Navy would attempt to disrupt the landings. This question caused real problems for Lord Keith. The risk was real as Lord Nelson won the battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798 when a large portion of the French crews had been ashore. The army required over half the sailors in the fleet to support their operations ashore, and the transports would be so undermanned as to be unable to work the ships while the boat crews were away. 3,339 sailors served in Lord Keith’s fleet; 545 of those sailors were expected to serve ashore, and a further 820 were expected to serve in the boats ferrying supplies to the army.11 Aboukir Bay provided an anchorage, but it was no safe haven in a storm. Lack of sailors also increased the risk of shipwrecks in storms and defeat in battle if the French fleet appeared. With the ships half-manned, Lord Keith doubted that in a crisis those sailors could rejoin the fleet prior to an engagement with the French. Lord Keith wrote, “I am convinced that were I to withdraw a man, the troops would re-embark and charge the failure to me.” Despite Lord Keith’s misgivings, fleet support ashore enabled British victory.

Conclusion

This campaign provides an excellent study of the difficulties of planning an amphibious operation. One will never have all the intelligence desired and one will have to make decisions based off very incomplete or inaccurate data. In London, poor intelligence and an ill-defined mission risked the expedition before it even set sail. At sea and on land the British forces demonstrated their resolve and flexibility in overcoming adversity and the French to secure Egypt. The seven weeks spent training while waiting for Ottoman support demonstrated the importance of rehearsals in preparation for an amphibious assault. The confusion of the Cadiz expedition was replaced with calm, discipline, and order. The daily training in ship-to-shore movement and forming lines from landing craft enabled the landing force to conduct an opposed landing against entrenched infantry utilizing linear musket-age tactics.

Throughout the campaign the Royal Navy provided naval fire support and logistics support to the army. Fleet support enabled the execution of the campaign, but the most important asset the expedition had was General Abercromby. His attention to detail, emphasis on training, and tactful ability to work with Lord Keith, despite the Admiral’s foibles, ensured the successful execution of the campaign.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

References

[1] Anderson, pg 222.

[2] Thomas Walsh andW.W. Knollys, The Cockade in the Sand,(Leonaur, 2014), pg 62.

[3] Anderson, pg 223.

[4] Mackesy, 75

[5] Lowry, pg 72

[6] Anderson, pg 239.

[7] Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, pp II-3

[8] Moore, 375

[9] Ibid., pp 376-378.

[10] Creswell, pg 99.

[11] Mackesy, pg 46.

Bibliography

Anderson, Aeneas. Journal of the Forces which sailed from the Downs on a Secret Expedition. London: Wilson and Co. of the Oriental Press, 1802.

Bartlett, Merrill L., ed. Assault From the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

Faden, William. “A detail of a plan of the Operations of the British Forces in Egypt from the landing in Aboukir Bay on th 8th of March to the Battle of Alexandria March 21st inclusive.” Wikimedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Mandora#/media/File:Faden_1801_alexandria_battle_detail.jpg. London, 1801.

Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. Vol. IV. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1915.

Glover, Richard. Peninsular Preparation 1795-1809. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations. Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2014.

Life of Sir R. Abercromby. Liverpool: J. Fowler, Market Place, Ormskirk, 1806.

Loutherbourg, Philip James de. “The landing of British troops at Aboukir, 8 March 1801.” Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_landing_of_British_troops_at_Aboukir,_8_March_1801.jpg. London, n.d.

Lowry, James. Fiddlers and Whores: The Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson’s Fleet. Edited by John Millyard. London: Chatham Publishing, 2006.

Mackesy, Piers. British Victory in Egypt The End of Napoleon’s Conquest. London: Tauris Parke, 2010.

Moiret, Joseph-Marie. Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition 1798-1801. Edited by Rosemary Brindle. Translated by Rosemary Brindle. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Molyneaux, Thomas More. Conjunct expeditions: or expeditions that have been carried on jointly by the fleet and army. London: ECCO Print Editions, 1759.

Moore, John. The Diary of Sir John Moore. Edited by J.F. Maurice. II vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1904.

Porter, Robert Ker. A Correct Account of the Battle of Alexandria. New York: Southwick and Hardcastle, 1804.

Walsh, Thomas, and W. W. Knollys. The Cockade in the Sand: The Defeat of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign. Leonaur, 2014.

Wilson, Sir Robert Thomas. Narrative of the British Expedition to Egypt. Dublin: W. Corbett, 1803.

Featured Image: Brigade of Guards Landing at Aboukir, March 8, 1801. Thomas Luny1759-1837.

The Decisive Fleet Engagement at the Battle of the Yalu River

By Aidan Clarke

When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval  programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?

Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.

Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.

On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4

The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6 

Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.

Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11

Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15

The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.

Japanese cruiser Matsushima pictured in 1896. Matsushima served as flagship of the Japanese Union Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22

In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.

What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.

Battle map of the fleet combat action at the Yalu River, 1894. By J. Hart, based on sketch by Philo N. McGiffin, 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.

Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26

Chinese battleship Ting Yuen which participated in the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.

Conclusion

The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.

During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.

The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.

References

1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

11. Ibid.

12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

19. “Summary of News: LATEST INTELLIGENCE HANDS OFF! RUSSIA IS FIRM LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME THE BATTLE OF PINGYANG THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE MOOR APOLOGISES LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME TO REASSURE JAPAN BAD NEWS FROM ST. PETERSBURG THE MILITARY CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRAITS SETTLEMENTS THE JAPANESE AT HAIYUENTAO THREATENING NEWS THE NAVAL FIGHT OFF THE YALOO GREAT FIRE AT MANILA THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE SAFETY OF THE TRANSPORTS THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 28 Sept. 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.

25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

26.  Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.

28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)