Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

The Tinderbox: Germany’s Naval Build-Up, the Great War of 1914, and the Balance of Power

By Captain Benigno R. Alcántara Gil, Dominican Republic Navy

Introduction

The popular “Thucydides trap” implies that fear of a growing hegemonic power is a fundamental reason for a nation to go to war with another.1 Under this premise, many have argued that Britain, as an insular power, feared the German naval build-up of the early 1900s as the most severe threat to Britain’s mainland security and, as such, it was the primary cause of Anglo-German conflict in World War I.

Nonetheless, the fundamental cause of the conflict was aggressive German foreign policy carried out in complete disregard for geopolitics, by means of irrational diplomacy as well as a series of hostilities that undermined regional dynamics and the European balance of power. Three reasons support this claim.

First, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foreign policy, known as Weltpolitik (world policy), communicated aspirations for world domination and thus instilled grave uncertainty about the preservation of peace and the European balance of power.

Second, back then, other rising powers were also building up and modernizing their naval services (such as the United States, France, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Japan). The German naval build-up only served to accentuate antagonism and mightier naval accrual for the British fleet, which remained proportionally superior in tonnage and readiness.

Third, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality confirmed Germany’s full political determination to alter Europe’s equilibrium through war. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, plus the emergence of questionable alliances, constituted a threat to peace, economic performance, and freedom of commerce.

Erratic Diplomacy and the Balance of Powers

Kissinger described the European diplomatic continental theater in the period before the Great War (World War I) as a “political doomsday machine,” his reasons were based on many diplomatic flaws and series of questionable German endeavors that lead into an escalation toward war.

Before discussing the erratic shifts in German diplomacy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it may be helpful to establish common ground about two concepts copiously used hereafter: diplomacy and balance of power. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines diplomacy as the “art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations.”2 Encyclopedia Britannica provides a broader description: “The established method of influencing the decisions and behavior of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.”3 Kissinger put it in much simpler terms as “the art of compromise,”4 and “the adjustment of differences through negotiation,”5 referring to an ability to create cooperation, settlement, agreement, or commitment.

Likewise, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines balance of power as “equilibrium of power sufficient to discourage or prevent one nation or a party from imposing its will on or interfering with the interests of another.”6 Moreover, theoretical consensus holds that such balance in the continental system works best if at least one of the following conditions is present:

  • A nation should be free to align itself with another nation in the same way;7 continually shifting alignments could also maintain equilibrium, as evidenced by Otto Von Bismarck’s diplomacy in his application of Realpolitik.
  • Whenever there are free alliances, there is a balancer that could ensure that none of the existing alliances becomes the only predominant force. This was Great Britain’s role just before it joined the Triple Entente.8
  • There can be rigid alliances and no balancer, as long as the level of cohesion is flexible enough to allow for changes in alignment upon any given event.9 The rationale for power equilibrium holds that if none of the previous conditions prevails in a system, diplomacy turns “” This leads into a zero-sum relationship among participating nations, and where this condition leads to armament races such as naval build-ups, and consequently to escalated tension such as those experienced during the Cold War.10

Returning to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Weltpolitik, it may be useful to provide a brief description of the Kaiser’s competencies as a national leader, from a critical perspective. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, during his war declaration against Germany in a speech to Congress, deplored Wilhelm II’s unprovoked assaults on the international order. He depicted the Kaiser as an individual with complete disregard for universal rights, and as the person responsible for propelling an immoral war in the self-interest of the dynasties.11

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversely, Kissinger labeled the Kaiser’s diplomacy as both irrational and unsound, for he drove the German empire on a quest for a new world order without a clear understanding of historical relationships and underlying diplomatic dynamics. The Kaiser proved himself indifferent to possible contingencies and inflexible toward alternate courses of diplomacy.

Dismissing Otto Von Bismarck from office, and not capitalizing on the vast knowledge of such an illustrious chancellor, was another remarkable mistake (some historians suggest that Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck out of personal insecurity, rather than because of criteria or substance).12 A rational political leader would have considered keeping a man of such stature and experience handy, either as an advisor or as a counterbalance. Conducting foreign policy with a heavy-handed and bullying assertiveness, threatening the other European powers with insecurity, and increasing uncertainty was a rapid way to undo the alliance system carefully achieved through Bismark’s Realpolitik.

In terms of the alliance system, it is essential to point out that Bismarck favored validating Prussia as a great power, rather than creating a grand nation-state that included Austria-Hungary. The Kaiser favored the latter option, falling short in his appreciation of the geopolitics of Europe. Furthermore, Kaiser Wilhelm II rejected an offer from Tzar Nicholas II to extend for another three-year term the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia; this breakage caused Germany to lose leverage with Austria-Hungary. Bismarck had used it to maintain a balancer position, keeping Vienna in check and Russia as a relative friend.

By breaking the treaty, Germany sent unclear signals to an already anxious Moscow, which paved the way for France to seek understanding with Russia, which suspected that the breakage was due to German support to a potential Austrian incursion in the Balkans. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rejection of Russia’s agreement occurred because he did not want to inherit complex alliance entanglements. Also, the Kaiser wanted to reassure Austria of Germany’s support and because he saw Russia’s agreement as an obstacle to allying with Britain (which he preferred over Russia). Consequently, the Franco-Russian agreement took place in 1894, in which France would aid Russia in diplomatic issues with Great Britain, likewise, both powers would support each other in the case of German aggression (whether by itself or with its allies).13

Another costly diplomatic misconception took place when the German and the British governments signed a colonial agreement where they exchanged and settled African colonial issues. The colonial agreement was very beneficial for both parties; however, it brought a series of misunderstandings, mainly because Germany envisioned the agreement as a new stage in bilateral relations and as a prelude to an Anglo-German Alliance.14 Thus, German diplomats ignored important historical precepts set by the British “Splendid Isolation” policy15 and instead continued to push for a formal alliance assertively. However, Britain rejected a formal entente, which hurt Kaiser Wilhelm II’s feelings and pride, thus missing the geopolitical and strategic perspective, and failing to realize that to be safe with Britain, a simpler accord of neutrality would have sufficed. Despite the British disposition to enter in a less formal cooperation entente with Germany, the Kaiser rejected such informality and again demanded a formal alliance with legal binding. Consequently, Britain rejected any type of accord with Germany.16

Kissinger affirmed that an informal accord to keep Britain as a benevolent neutral in case of a continental war was far more valuable than any other type of legal agreement, for Germany could have won any conflict as long as Great Britain remained unaligned. However, German impatience and intransigence sent the opposite signals to Great Britain and generated substantial doubts about Germany’s true intentions.17

After nearly 15 years of inconsistency and disquieting foreign policy that bullied the European balance of power, Germany managed to isolate itself. It went from having a genius system of alliances that allowed it to preserve its relative equilibrium, to virtually isolating itself on the continent. Simultaneously, it took about the same time to extinguish each of the conditions that ensured the balance of powers in the European theater. This imbalance ignited the armament race, which later turned into tests of strength, which after the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, ultimately triggered Britain’s declaration of war against Germany.

Germanys Naval Build-up

The German and British arms race emerged from the deterioration of the European balance of power. Nevertheless, despite the undeniable budgetary constraints and heightened public anxiety the German build-up instilled upon the British admiralty, Britain remained the naval hegemon with unmatched naval superiority and unrivaled naval warfare prowess.

In fact, despite the build-up, the German fleet still could not compete navy-to-navy with the British fleet, neither in size nor in naval warfare competencies. According to figures and statistics presented by Paul Kennedy, the naval build-up was not sufficient to jeopardize Britain’s indisputable control of the sea. For instance, at the height of the arms race, Germany’s total warship tonnage was estimated around 1.3 million tons, while Britain’s total warship tonnage was around 2.7 million tons.18

Conversely, if the issue had been the naval build-up, then the U.S. naval build-up would also be equally threatening to Britain. The U.S. became a mighty maritime power in the western hemisphere, where its build-up gave it the next largest fleet after Germany’s, with a total warship tonnage of about 900,000 tons. Incidentally, the United States also contested European powers at sea through the application of the Monroe Doctrine in the western hemisphere. Moreover, it directly contested Britain’s maritime hegemony and achieved political concessions over the Venezuela disputes, Isthmian Canal, and the Alaska boundary. One could wonder why this did not translate into an Anglo-American conflict. 

Because of the grave anxiety produced by Weltpolitik throughout Europe, the antagonist naval arms race only served to encouraged a mightier naval accrual for the British side as part of a natural reactionary response to competition. David Stevenson also depicted the total number of warships on each side, revealing the extent to which the Royal Navy outnumbered the German Navy.19

According to Stevenson, the German build-up conceived by Wilhelm II, Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz, and Bernard Von Bulow never envisioned to actually fight Britain, but rather to use the fleet as a negotiation advantage to encourage Britain to come to terms and make concessions in a future crisis.20 Conversely, Germany formally negotiated not to employ its  navy against France and to slow its naval build-up in return for British neutrality in the conflict. Britain turned down both offers in 1909, which implies that the build-up was not Britain’s main concern.21

Why was the Build-up so Frightening?

Some blame the extraordinary German industrial boom, as it supported the rapid and massive military build-up, as well as the robust economic growth experienced in the years preceding the war.

German figures (1910-1914) depict notable increases in all areas of national development. For instance, German military personnel approximately rose by 30% (67% over Britain), relative shares of manufacturing output grew by 15% (14% above Britain), total industrial potential increased by 80% (8% over Britain), iron and steel production increased by 30% (128% over Britain) and more importantly, warship tonnage increased by 35% (about 50% less than Britain).22

The speed and magnitude of the German naval armament build-up seemed to threaten the British hegemonic position in control of the sea. Sir Eyrie A. Crowe;23 in his famous memo, dated January 1, 1907), explained why an accord with Germany was not feasible and why German capabilities were more important, per his views. In his own words: “Germany was aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her neighbors and incompatible with the survival of the British Empire.”24

Britain’s insular and advantageous geopolitical position could also have become a source of concern, as the tranquility of Britain’s maritime buffer could only be threatened by hegemonic continental German rule, assisted by an overwhelming naval build-up. Moreover, the influence of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theoretical constructs about “sea power”25 only reinforced the strategic value of sea power and sea control on both sides. Furthermore, both British and the Germans, as avid readers of Mahan, understood the concept “command of the sea,” and Kaiser Wilhelm II did try to rely on this knowledge to secure an accord with Britain. However, the British realized that such an alliance would only constitute a temporary placebo. The fear of unexpected dramatic shifts if Britain had remained neutral or if it had entered alliance would have allowed Germany to become a continental hegemon that would later contest Britain’s command of the sea.

Consequently, the British instead embraced the French entente which was more friendly to the British maritime hegemon, and where the 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention did not endanger Britain sea power. Therefore, the French carefully crafted the entente with Mahan in mind.

Pre-Conflict Kinetic Dynamics

Germany’s mobilizations in support of Austria-Hungary and the violation of Belgium’s neutrality confirmed a clear disruption in Europe’s balance of powers, and ultimately served as casus belli.26The German mobilization was an important part of the Schlieffen Plan,27 where the plan pre-calculated a scenario based on time, force, and space considerations. Significantly, it included violating neutral countries in order to attack France. For this reason, the German Army presented the monarchy of Belgium an ultimatum for free passage through Belgium, which the Belgians refused under the claim of neutral status in the war. As a consequence, German troops invaded neutral Belgium on August 4, 1914.28 In essence, the Schlieffen Plan aimed to destroy the French Army by a direct and swift attack on its own soil, and where this preemptive attack expected to capture Paris and trap the French Army in just six weeks. Then Germany would turn toward Russia before it could complete the full mobilization of its army.29

Schlieffen Plan (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite German acknowledgement of the Treaty of London with the Low Countries (the kingdoms of the Netherlands and Belgium), the German plan contemplated a violation of Belgium and the Netherlands.30 However, it did not account for potential British involvement, despite the fact that Britain was determined to protect the Low Countries from any major power incursion.31

Notwithstanding, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a militant in a Serbo-Croatian revolutionary group called “Young Bosnia” (a group affiliated with the Serbian paramilitary called “Black Hand”) assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand along with his wife in Sarajevo.32 The Archduke’s assassination led to Austria-Hungary (which was backed by Germany) to declare war on Serbia. Unreceptive of Serbia’s official reparation offers and willingness to work out a peaceful solution, Austria-Hungary mobilized against Serbia. In the background, Russia and France entered an entente to back Serbia. In parallel, Germany made pacts with the Ottoman Empire, and it later attacked France. Britain made up her mind and resolved to join the triple entente with France and Russia. In the distance, the United States remained vigilant but did not join the war theater until later.33 Although put in a rather simplistic narrative, it illustrates the convoluted political and kinetic dynamics that resulted in gross miscalculations that completely fractured Europe’s balance of power and thus led to the Great War.

Conclusion

Arms races and military build-ups are a recurring phenomenon in global politics even today. Today’s media features multiple headlines such as “Military build-up in the vicinity of the recently annexed Crimea”;34 “China’s menacing naval build-up and claims about its territorial seas, the Spratly and Paracel islands”;35 and news about Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) tests from North Korea, as well as massive armament build-ups despite the peace pact with South Korea.36

The second headline in particular relates directly to the essence of what has been discussed herein and applies to an ongoing naval build-up between two indisputable superpowers, the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Reportedly, the U.S. Navy augmented its ship production goals to attain a 355-ship fleet (up from around 290 ships today). More recent force structure assessments put the desired number even higher, at more than 500 ships. Recognizing the need for more Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers (DDG-51) to counter growing ballistic missile and anti-ship missile threats,37 the U.S. is bringing its DDG-51 production to a total of 85.38 In contrast, the Chinese Navy (PLA Navy) has surpassed the U.S. Navy in overall numbers of battle force ships.

According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) estimated that by the end of 2020 the PLA Navy would attain 360 battle force ships, compared with a projected total fleet of 297 ships for the U.S. Navy at the end of the year. ONI also projects that the PLA Navy will have 400 battle force ships by 2025, and 425 by the end of 2030.39

Besides the naval issues, ongoing commercial and trade disputes between China and the United States have substantially affected international markets. The effects of the so-called “trade war” reflects in the balance of payments, economic performance, and economic growth of many countries around the globe. The world economy not only had to revise (lower) its growth potential expectations but also had to accept prospects of an equally adverse and pessimistic trade outlook for the near future.

Nevertheless, it is always worrisome when reactionary political countermeasures and economic retaliation takes the place of sound high diplomacy from a global perspective. For instance, the current bilateral arms race among major powers today includes and is not limited to the production of aircraft carriers, surface combatant ships, combat aircraft, submarines, unmanned vehicles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles, and C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems.40 As such, logic dictates that no superpower would benefit from this competition, for in an age with so many nuclear-capable nations, a clash that could escalate to thermonuclear levels will only yield losses and disaster on a global scale. It would be like if no lessons were learned from the Cold War period (1947-1991), a period that kept the world under the stress of continuous geopolitical tension and uncertainty due to the cataclysmic implications of nuclear-capable great powers.

Clausewitz41 wrote about the complexity of war; how nations are typically driven into conflict due to a combination of factors, such as, military capability, the political value of the object (aims), the geopolitical governing dynamics, and social sentiments and passions (people and public opinion). The Anglo-German conflict occurred due to a series of cascading and unfortunate events in Europe, including the July Crisis, along with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Serbia’s attack, and the violation of Belgium’s position of neutrality.

Today, the world’s balance of powers will depend upon sound diplomacy under the terms of legitimacy, specifically under the terms of Clemens Von Metternich.42 Conversely, sound diplomacy shall refer to a consensus within the framework of the international order of all major powers, put in Kissinger terms, to the extent that no state is so dissatisfied (as Germany was after Versailles) that it will engage in deliberate violation of international treaties, of the international rule of law, and another state’s national sovereignty.43

Captain Alcántara was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He is a graduate from the Dominican Naval Academy with a Bachelor in Naval Sciences (1996). He holds masters degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (MBA, 2005), and from Salve Regina University (MSc, 2017). He is also a proud alumni of he U.S. Naval War College, Naval Command College (Class of 2017), and the Naval Senior Leadership Development Concentration track (NSLDC), U.S. NWC.

Bibliography

1. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster. (1994).

2. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, (2004).

3. Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House. (1987).

4. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books. (2017).

5. Mahan, Sir Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783. Little Brown and Company. Boston. (1890).

6. (423 BC). Robert B. Strasser. The Landmark: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Touchstone, New York. (1996).

7. Keegan, John. The First World War. (2000).

8. Kossmann, E. H. (1978). The Low Countries, 1780–1940. Oxford University Press. (1st edition).

9. O’Rourke. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities. (2020).

10. H.I. Sutton. Aerospace & Defense. Forbes. (2019).

11. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.

12. The Encyclopedia Britannica online.

13. Business Insider online.

14. The Wall Street Journal online.

15. The New York Times online.

16. Foreign Policy Magazine online.

Endnotes

1. Thucydides (423 B.C.) edited by Robert B. Strasser. The Landmark: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Touchstone, New York. (1996). Ancient war correspondent and historian, Thucydides wrote, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” Further, history seem to have validated this theory, for almost on every occasion a rising power threatened to displace (Instilled fear) a ruling one, the result has usually been war.

2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diplomacy, accessed on 03/31/2017.

3. Chas. W. Freeman & Sally Marks. Meaning of diplomacy. https://www.britannica.com/topic/diplomacy, accessed on 03/27/2020.

4. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.

5. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of Peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books.2017.

6. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/balanceofpower, Accessed on 03/31/2017.

7. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.

8. Triple Entente: An informal understanding agreed by The Russian Empire, The Third French Republic and Great Britain, which served as counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, 1914-1918.

9. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.

10. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.

11. Ibid. Pages 48-49.

12. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 14.

13. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 181.

14. Ibid. Page 178.

15. Splendid Isolation: Foreign policy guidance preventing the British Empire to entangled itself in continental alliance systems and to military agreements, under the formal objective to remaining active in the high seas.

16. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Pages 178-180.

17. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Pages 183.

18. Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987. Page 203.

19. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 70.

20. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 15.

21. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 212.

22. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 15

23. Sir Eyre Alexander Crowe (30 July 1864 – 28 April 1925) was a British diplomat and a leading expert on Germany in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Best known for his vigorous warning, in 1907, that Germany’s expansionist intentions toward Britain were hostile and had to be met with a closer alliance (“Entente”) with France.

24. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Memorandum_on_the_Present_State_of_British_Relations_with_France_and_Germany. Accessed on 02/03/2020.

25. Mahan, Sir Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783. Little Brown and Company. Boston. (1890).

26. Motive of war; herein, seen as actions by an actor perceived to have initiated war.

27. After Alfred Von Schlieffen (Chief of the General Staff of the German Army from 1891 to 1906). In 1905 and 1906, Schlieffen devised an Army deployment plan for a decisive war-winning offensive against the French Third Republic.

28. Kossmann, E. H. (1978). The Low Countries, 1780–1940. History of Modern Europe. Oxford University Press. (1st ed.).

29. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 205.

30. The Treaty of London of 1839 was a treaty signed on 19 April 1839 between the European great powers, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium. Also known as the First Treaty of London, the Convention of 1839, and the London Treaty of Separation.

31. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 213.

32. Keegan, John (2000). The First World War. Vintage. p. 48. ISBN 0-375-70045-5.

33. Willibald Krain. (1914). Kladderadatsch. Der Stänker

34. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04ndbk3 (accessed on April 1, 2017).

35. http://www.businessinsider.com/maps-explain-south-china-sea-2017-3, (accessed on April 1, 2017).

36. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB986149564452369050, (accessed on April 1, 2017).

37. https://news.usni.org/2020/03/12/navy-considers-reversing-course-on-arleigh-burke-class-life-extension

38. H.I. Sutton. Aerospace & Defense. Forbes. (2019). https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2019/12/15/china-is-building-an-incredible-number-of-warships/#716fe39c69ac. Accessed on 28/03/2020.

39. R. O’Rourke. 2020. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files, accessed on 28/03/2020.

40. R. O’Rourke. 2020. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files, accessed on 28/03/2020.

41. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Col. J.J. Graham (1832), available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1946/1946-h/1946-h.htm

42. Klemens Von Metternich, Austrian statesman, minister of foreign affairs (1809–48), he is credited with helping achieve the alliance against Napoleon I, and the restoration of Austria as an European power

43. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of Peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books.2017.

Featured Image: The 2nd Squadron of the German High Seas Fleet sails to the North Sea. (Wikimedia Commons, colorized by Irootoko Jr.)

The Advent of Naval Dazzle Camouflage

By Mark Wood

During WWI, maritime artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson proposed that the answer to the growing U-Boat threat, rather than concealment, was for a ship to expose itself to the enemy.

At the commencement of WWI, anti-submarine warfare theory was still in its infancy. There were no instruction manuals on submarine tracking, nor had sub-surface weapons been developed to counter the threat posed by submarines. The initial German U-Boat campaign of 1914 against Britain’s Grand Fleet proved highly successful, resulting in the sinking of nine British warships by the end of the year, including the cruisers Aboukir and Cressy, and the battleship Formidable.

This disastrous beginning to the war forced the Royal Navy to seek safer anchorages off Donegal on Ireland’s North Atlantic coast. The following year, Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare saw a dramatic escalation of attacks, and corresponding losses to the Allied merchant fleets. During the first six months of the war only 19 merchant vessels had been lost to U-Boat activity, however in January 1915 alone, the same amount of tonnage was sunk as was destroyed in the previous six months of conflict.

Allied navies resorted to arming trawlers and merchantmen, and some basic tactical instruction was disseminated detailing ideas to counter the U-boat threat, including heading into the line of attack, and attempting to ram hostile submarines.

It was not until 1917 that a Royal Navy officer wrote to the admiralty in London with what he considered might be a possible solution. Norman Wilkinson was a successful painter of maritime seascapes, and an artist for the Illustrated London News, who had set his career aside in 1915 to join the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. After submarine service in the Mediterranean, he was transferred to mine-sweeping duties in home waters and it was at this point that his idea for a radical form of effective camouflage began to take shape.

Naval camouflage was not a revolutionary idea. The ancient fleets of the Greeks and Romans had experimented with painting their vessels in shades of blue and green to blend with the surface and horizon, and in the early 20th century, navies of the United States and Europe stipulated shades of grey or off-white in accordance with shipping regulations in an attempt to do the same.

Wilkinson’s idea for dazzle camouflage ran contrary to previous thinking. Instead of attempting to hide vessels from enemy view, he intended that they should be highly visible with the key aim of sowing confusion in the mind of the attacker.

During early submarine operations, the task of computing a fire control solution for a U-Boat commander was a manual process. The target intercept course for a torpedo was calculated using slide rules and based on visual tracking of the current position, course, speed, and range of the vessel to be attacked. This problem was further complicated by the fact that the average speed of a torpedo was between 35 and 45 knots, only moderately faster than most warships of the age, therefore plotting information from a visual fix could be inaccurate at best.

Wilkinson reasoned that geometric dazzle patterns painted on ships would take advantage of the complexity in gauging the optimum firing solution for a torpedo by masking a vessel’s true course and speed, thereby confusing the commanders of German U-Boats and deceiving them into miscalculating the submarine’s fire position.

Submarine commander’s periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right). (Wikimedia Commons)

The bold patterns and extremes of color used in his designs, particularly at the bow and stern would disrupt the visual shape of a vessel, distorting perspective and falsely suggesting that a ship’s smokestacks or superstructure pointed in a different direction than it truly was.

Painted bow curves suggested a bow wave and oblique lines in stripes at the corresponding angles of bow or stern could give the illusion of shortening the vessels length, again confusing the computations of a ship’s attacker. Wilkinson’s ideas borrowed from modernist art concepts of cubism (indeed Picasso, in conversation with the American poet and novelist Gertrude Stein, claimed that the Cubist movement should take credit for its invention), the school of futurism, and its short-lived offshoot, vorticism.

The admiralty initially considered a number of proposals for camouflage schemes, including those from U.S. artist Abbot H. Thayer, whose theories of what he termed “concealing coloration” and “counter shading” were published in 1896 in the Journal of the American Ornithologists Union and are now known as Thayer’s Law. This law was based on the scientist’s many years of observing fauna across the continents of North and South America and concludes that animals are generally dark on top with white under surfaces. Seen from a distance this tends to cancel out the bright sunlight from above and shadow beneath, thereby effectively concealing an animal from potential predators. Thayer demonstrated his ideas to the Department of the U.S. Navy in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, however hostilities came to an end before his proposals could be acted upon.

A Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr, developed a keen interest in Thayer’s theories and after meeting in London during the 1890s the two remained lifelong friends, with Thayer forwarding a copy of his book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom to Kerr in 1914. Kerr’s own approach focused on two main interpretations of his own zoological studies combined with Thayer’s. In compensated shading, a theory he elaborated as “All deep shadows should be picked out in the most brilliant white paint and where there is a gradually deepening shadow, this should be eliminated by gradually shading off the paint from the ordinary grey to pure white.” He suggested a further camouflage scheme he named “parti coloring” which anticipated modern “disruptive pattern” concealment by emphasizing the need to break up the outline of ships by using “strongly contrasting shades.”

 Models of the British passenger liner Mauretania demonstrate the effects of dazzle camouflage in comparison with a plain grey color scheme, when seen from the same line of direction. Photographed circa 1918. The camouflage scheme seen here was eventually not used on Mauretania. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.)

While both Thayer and Kerr clearly pioneered the ideas that formed the basis of dazzle camouflage, it was the ideas of Norman Wilkinson that the admiralty board eventually adopted. In recognition of his efforts a post-war award of £2000 was given to him, acknowledging him as the inventor of dazzle camouflage.

The Second World War

Despite the evidence, there was at the time no consensus as to the advantage of using dazzle camouflage, however, Allied naval authorities were sufficiently impressed to continue to employ the idea on both warships and their respective merchant fleets in WWII. The Imperial German Navy had shown little interest in camouflaging their vessels during the Great War and it wasn’t until the Second World War during the invasion of Norway in 1940 that the Germans embraced the possibility of employing the dazzle concept. Photographic evidence of the period shows the hull of the Bismarck painted in a monochrome pattern of dark grey or black and white stripes continuing up onto the superstructure, with the prow and stern area painted black. The intention was to disguise the length of the battleship, creating the impression of a smaller vessel. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was almost identically camouflaged along the waist with extremes of the bow and stern also painted in black, and the battleships Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer adopted individual dazzle patterns to mask their identities from Allied naval forces. For whatever reason the Kriegsmarine returned to the format of light or dark grey overall for all warships after 1941, whether the senior staff of Oberkommando der Marine were skeptical of the capabilities of geometric camouflage, or whether there were other reasons for the return to pre-war coloring, remains open to debate.

German battleship Bismarck in a Norwegian fjord, 21 May 1941, shortly before departing for her Atlantic sortie. Photographed from the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Location is probably Grimstadfjord, just south of Bergen. Bismarck’s camouflage was painted over before she departed the area. (NHHC # NH 69720)

While the German navy discarded dazzle camouflage in the early stages of the war, the Allied navies continued its widespread use throughout hostilities until 1945. After continued analytical and evaluative groundwork at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., dazzle camouflage was deemed to be of merit and a phased roll-out was endorsed across respective fleets. In contrast to the Kriegsmarine’s employment of marine camouflage, as an anti-ship/submarine initiative, the U.S. Navy and to a lesser extent the navies of Britain and Canada attempted to use the bold patterns to disrupt attacks by enemy air assets as well as surface ships and submarines. By continuing the geometric shapes across the decks and superstructures of warships. Each ship was painted in its own distinctive camouflage to prevent the enemy from identifying a class of ship, resulting in a diverse array of patterns which made it considerably more difficult to evaluate its effectiveness.

The U.S. Navy implemented the scheme across most classes of vessel from minesweepers and patrol craft to aircraft carriers. Rigorous design, planning and testing was applied to each pattern and a standardized range of colors and shapes were instituted and applied across all theaters including the Pacific, specifically against the Kamikaze threat.

Camouflage pattern sheet, Measures 31- 32-33, Design 3A, for Essex (CV-9) class carriers. (U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships/Wikimedia Commons)

The Royal Navy’s use of dazzle commenced at the beginning of 1940 and was considerably less organised. The admiralty adopted a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to the idea and paint schemes were unofficial and individual to each vessel. It was not until later in the war that the admiralty saw fit to take a more serious view of dazzle camouflage and the navy’s concealment specialists devised geometric patterns which became known as the Western Approaches Schemes, to be employed against the sub-sea threat in the Atlantic. The initiative was developed, and the Admiralty Intermediate Disruptive Pattern was employed in 1942 and was superseded in 1944 by the Admiralty Standard Schemes.

The proliferation of black and white photographic images which have been left to historical posterity, while starkly delineating the vivid lines and curves of dazzle camouflage, are unable to convey the range of color and tone so important to the process of deception. Striking shades of blues, reds, greens and purples contrasted with the light and dark grays which made the experiment so effective.

Eventually post-war technological advances in rangefinding equipment and radar rendered dazzle camouflage largely obsolete, and it fell out of favor in post-war naval thinking.

Was Dazzle Camouflage Effective?

Establishing the effectiveness of Wilkinson’s ideas is almost impossible, not least due to the sheer number of variables to be considered such as color, pattern, and the combination of sizes of ships, vessel speed, and the anti-submarine evasion tactics used. An article in the April 1919 edition of Popular Science considered dazzle camouflage an effective tactic in confusing U-Boat commanders although only at short range and less so than what it termed “low visibility” camouflage.

Arguments continue into the present as to the results of gaudy geometric shapes in protecting ships at sea, but it might certainly be considered the most striking example of art being used to develop a solution in war.

While the United States Navy declared in 1918 that statistical evidence suggested less than one percent of merchant vessels painted in dazzle were sunk, these claims are difficult to substantiate. The testimony of U-Boat commanders who had launched attacks against merchant vessels painted in dazzle camouflage suggests that it was a highly effective countermeasure, even to the point of confusing the issue of the type of ships being attacked and the number of vessels in a convoy. Those convoys that were hit suffered less serious damage than those  that were not camouflaged.

While debate over the capabilities of dazzle camouflage continues among naval historians, perhaps the final word should come from the man who officially invented the concept. In an article published in 1920 in the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, Norman Wilkinson stated that “The German Admiralty had dazzle painted a liner and had attached her to the submarine training depot at Kiel,” while at the close of hostilities, “a number of the surrendered submarines were painted in precisely the same manner as our merchant vessels.” It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it is this observation by Norman Wilkinson that may answer the question of the worth of dazzle camouflage.

Mark Wood served 15 years in the communications branch of the Royal Navy, with further service in HM Coastguard. After leaving the military he qualified as a history teacher and divides his time between the education sector and working as a freelance writer for military history magazines and websites. Mark is also currently engaged on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project as a volunteer with the UK’s National Archives.

Featured Image: French cruiser Gloire in dazzle camouflage. (Department of the Navy, Naval Photographic Center)

The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: Phillips O’Brien on Admiral William Leahy

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss with Phillips Payson O’Brien his latest book, The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of StaffIn this conversation O’Brien sheds light on Admiral Bill Leahy’s momentous contributions to U.S. strategy and foreign policy in the critical years during and following World War II, as well as his personal style of discreetly exercising influence as “the second most powerful man in the world.”

As the title clearly suggests, Admiral Leahy wielded tremendous power and influence, especially during the interwar period, WWII, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. What were the sources of his power and influence that led you to describe him as “the second most powerful man in the world”?

The single most important element in Leahy’s rise to the top of the U.S. government in World War II was his longstanding friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two men first met in the Navy Department in 1913 and grew to not only enjoy each other’s company, but to trust each other’s instincts. In the case of Roosevelt, this was special. Roosevelt, though outwardly charming, was not a naturally trusting individual. As he rose up politically, he was surrounded by ambitious people trying to take advantage of his power to further their own careers—and he often held them at arm’s length because of this. In the case of Leahy, he came across someone who was happy not to be in the limelight, but motivated to serve his interests first and foremost. It was why, as soon as Roosevelt became president, he started promoting Leahy up the naval chain of command, making sure that the admiral received every major position he could—chief of the Bureau of Navigation, commander of the Battle Force, and culminating in Leahy’s appointment as Chief of Naval Operations (1937-1939).

The two men also shared a similar strategic outlook. They were committed believers in the importance of a strong American navy and both had been strongly influenced by the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan. It meant that when they did work together running the American Navy in the 1930s, they instinctively reinforced each other’s perceptions and made a very strong team. By the time World War II started for the U.S., the American Navy was more the creation of these two men than any others.

Leahy actually retired formally in 1939, having reached mandatory retirement age. However by this time Roosevelt had made the decision that if a war did break out in the near future he would want to bring Leahy back to help him run it. He started discussing such a role with Leahy in the spring of 1939, and the two men honed the specifics of the role during the coming years. To allow this to happen, Roosevelt kept Leahy employed. He first made him governor of Puerto Rico, so that Leahy could help build up naval bases in the Caribbean. He then made Leahy ambassador to Vichy France. Both of these positions were a sign of the special trust the president had in the admiral.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Admiral William Leahy on board USS Houston (CA-30) during the president’s cruise in that ship which began on 18 February 1939 and ended on 3 March 1939 in the Caribbean. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Beyond the close personal relationship between Leahy and Roosevelt, the admiral had a number of key skills. He was instinctively political (this is discussed in more detail later) and he was undoubtedly competent and thorough. Though not the most deeply intellectual, Leahy had a way of getting a job done that was invaluable. When you combine this with his lack of interest in personal publicity, it was a powerful cocktail and made him stand out in a Washington DC populated by people who were always on the lookout for personal glory.

Soon after the U.S. entered WWII, it was confronted with a major strategic decision on how it should define specific war production priorities for its tremendous industrial might, a decision you described in the book as perhaps one of the most strategic decisions of the war for the U.S. What was Admiral Leahy’s role in these deliberations?

Usually strategy in WWII is seen as some great debate over where and when military force should be used. Discussions over whether the U.S. should have invaded France in 1943 or 1944, or whether it should fight a Germany-First war are perhaps the most famous examples of this. In our focus on the where and when, however, what is almost always overlooked is the what. All the great powers in World War II had to decide what to build in terms of equipment, force structure, how to balance needs between armies, navies, and air forces, as well as within the services such as balancing needs between, for example, fighters and bombers or tanks and trucks.

This was a far more involved process for the U.S. than many realize and William Leahy was at the heart of this debate. Not long after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt approved an arms construction plan of enormous depth and breadth which was nicknamed the Victory Program. However, by the summer of 1942, it was clear that even with the largest and most powerful economy in the world the U.S. could not build nearly as much equipment as was called for by the Victory Plan. A crisis ensued and hard choices needed to be made in the second half of 1942 about what would be built, and even more controversially, what would have to be cut.

Leahy was the most important person in the government, except for Roosevelt, in determining these priorities. By this point he was both the president’s chief of staff (the closest modern equivalent would be the National Security Adviser) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wearing his two hats he fought to cut army construction and focus on aircraft and aircraft carrier construction. By December 1942 he had emerged triumphant, and both his targets received the highest priority for the U.S. in 1943 and 1944. On the other hand, production for the army, particularly tank construction, was slashed. This decision, which has received little historical discussion, determined what the U.S. could and could not do during the war.

Admiral Leahy photographed circa 1945. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Another strategic choice that Leahy was instrumental in making at this time was about the size of U.S. armed forces. The other joint chiefs favored inducting huge numbers of men and women into the forces, at one point devising a plan for more than ten million U.S. military personnel. That plan, however, soon clashed headlong with the need to keep skilled personnel working in the economy to produce war material. Leahy was the only military officer to serve on a small committee chosen by Roosevelt to examine the question of military and civilian employment, and he came down strongly in favor of more equipment production and a small army. His preference was one of the reasons that the U.S. fought the war that it did. The United States opted for an equipment heavy, personnel-light military force structure that kept casualties down.  

Admiral Leahy chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II (and afterward) and also participated in major strategic conferences of the war, such as at Yalta and Potsdam. What was his influence on wartime grand strategy and the conduct of WWII?

Leahy took over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs holding very different strategic priorities from the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall. Looking at the war from an overall perspective, Leahy did not want the United States to fight a Germany-First war, which Marshall and many others, including Winston Churchill, strongly supported. Leahy was worried that if the Japanese were allowed to entrench themselves in their Pacific empire while the U.S. threw everything into the war against Germany, that it would have devastating consequences. It would, he feared, take many extra years and a great deal of American blood to take the fight to Tokyo.

In this, Leahy walked arm-in-arm with Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. The Leahy-King alliance ended up triumphing in this fight, and contrary to what is widely believed, at no time in the war did the United States fight a Germany-First strategy. In 1942 the U.S. fought, if anything, a Japan-First war. The United States sent more overall equipment to the Pacific over Europe or North Africa. In 1943 and 1944 the U.S. fought two different wars. The Army and Army Air Force did prioritize the war against Germany—sending approximately two-thirds of their equipment to Europe. The Navy, on the other hand, sent at least 90 percent of its strength (including one of the largest air forces in the world) to fight Japan. This meant that in overall terms the United States, under Leahy’s watchful eye, fought a war almost evenly balanced between Europe and the Pacific but weighed slightly more toward the latter.

When it came to the war against Germany, Leahy’s vision was the one the United States followed more than any other chief’s. Leahy was the only chief who supported the invasion of North Africa in 1942, better known as the Torch Landings. Indeed, Leahy had been the first major policymaker who proposed a North African invasion to Roosevelt, suggesting such an operation in the summer of 1941 (when Leahy was ambassador to Vichy France). Leahy believed such an operation would confine Germany to the European continent, and allow for Allied domination of the Atlantic. Understanding Leahy’s strong support for Torch helps explain why Roosevelt backed the operation over the strong opposition of Marshall and King almost immediately after Leahy became Chief of Staff.

After Torch, Leahy’s number one goal for the war in Europe was to delay the invasion of France until 1944. He did not want to try an invasion in 1943, which Marshall supported, because Leahy believed it was an unnecessary risk which could result in high U.S. casualties (and he also believed it would deprive the war against Japan of needed equipment). He thus helped undermine the U.S. army’s attempt to get British approval for any 1943 invasion. However, once this was ruled out, Leahy enthusiastically supported D-Day in 1944, and helped force the British to accept this position at the grand strategic conferences in Washington, Quebec, Cairo, and Tehran which were held in 1943.

Allied leaders pose in the courtyard of Livadia Palace, Yalta, during the conference. Those seated are (from left to right): Prime Minister Winston Churchill (UK); President Franklin D. Roosevelt (USA); and Premier Josef Stalin (USSR). Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, R.N., and Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, R.A.F. (both standing behind Churchill); and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt). (Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)

Following the death of his close friend President Roosevelt and the end of WWII, Admiral Leahy continued to be highly influential in the Truman administration and played a major role in many critical postwar questions. How did Admiral Leahy shape postwar formulations of the U.S. defense establishment and international order?

Franklin Roosevelt’s death led to a significant change in Leahy’s influence. For the two years before FDR died, Leahy was the most influential policymaker in the White House, as Harry Hopkins (who was more influential in 1942 when Leahy became chief of staff) saw his influence decline. However, Leahy had no pre-existing relationship with Harry Truman, and so he immediately lost his preeminent position as a close friend and longtime confidant of the president when Roosevelt passed. Truman also had a very high opinion of people such as George Marshall and James Byrnes and he started taking their advice more than Roosevelt did. That being said, Leahy did maintain a good deal of power. After meeting him, Truman decided he wanted to keep Leahy on as his chief of staff, and by 1946 they were even on the road to becoming friends. Leahy, for instance became an automatic companion of the president when Truman started taking his famous vacations at the naval base in Key West, Florida.

The establishment of a strong working relationship with Truman allowed Leahy to keep influence in a few areas—most importantly relations with the Soviet Union. By the time Truman took over, Leahy had met with Stalin twice, at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, and had discussed U.S.-Soviet relations with Roosevelt countless times. Though Leahy was never critical of Roosevelt, he was always instinctively more skeptical about the future of relations with the Soviets than the deceased president. He believed a long-term, friendly relationship between the two nations was unlikely and wanted the U.S. to toughen up in its positions—a stance he started urging on the new president.

President Harry S. Truman is piped aboard USS Missouri (BB-63), during the Navy Day fleet review in the Hudson River, New York City, 27 October 1945. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy is just behind the president. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Truman almost immediately after becoming president asked Leahy for briefings on relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the first time Truman met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, he asked Leahy to be in the room with him, providing support. Maybe Leahy’s greatest role in this regard was how he shaped Truman’s most important speech on Soviet relations, his Navy Day address of late 1945 and, even more surprisingly, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of 1946. Leahy was the driving force behind the writing of the Navy Day address as a series of points, with a noticeable message about the role of the U.S. in supporting free peoples. When Churchill heard the Navy Day address, he decided to press ahead with an address of his own, which became known as the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill discussed this speech with Leahy more than any other American, indeed they spent one entire morning going through the text when Churchill visited Washington just before it was delivered. Churchill was so grateful for Leahy’s advice that, years afterward, he privately thanked the admiral for it.

Admiral Leahy frequently interacted with many well-known individuals of the WWII era, including those known for their strong personalities such as Admiral Ernest King, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and others. How would you describe Admiral Leahy’s personal style of leadership and management?

Leahy was instinctively political, and this defined his career for either good or ill depending on your point of view. He had the ability to read people and situations and adjust his own responses in such a way to appeal to those with whom he interacted—without revealing his true opinions. His lifelong friend and fellow Admiral Thomas Hart claimed that Leahy was a “born diplomat” who “always gets on with others.” In social situations Hart claimed that Leahy could be as “comfortable as an old shoe.”

This political, personal skill was a powerful weapon in his arsenal. He could use it on people he genuinely liked, such as Franklin Roosevelt, or those of whom he was deeply skeptical, such as Vice President Henry Wallace. It seems from the moment that Leahy met Roosevelt in 1913 he found a way to appeal to the young politician, to behave in such a way that earned Roosevelt’s trust. On the other hand, someone like the left-wing Wallace, about whom Leahy was intensely skeptical, seemed to think that the admiral was a friend or at least thought well of him when that was certainly not the case. Wallace had no idea that Leahy was working to undermine his position when he was Secretary of Commerce under Truman.

Leahy’s political skills were evident in his chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff and his behavior at the great grand strategic conferences of World War II. As chairman or “senior member,” which was what he normally referred to himself as during the war, Leahy would usually let the other chiefs such as Marshall and King go on at great length with discussing their ideas and plans. If Leahy disagreed he would rarely say so outright, but instead, in a friendly manner, start asking questions of the plan being proposed and in doing so hopefully highlight its weaknesses. Leahy thus retained the impression of being impartial, when at times he was very partial indeed.  

At a luncheon meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, circa 1943. Present are (from left to right): General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Air Forces; Admiral William D. Leahy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet; and General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

When dealing with the higher-ups such as Churchill and Stalin, Leahy normally said as little as possible, and when he did speak it was to support the position of the president. Both Churchill and Stalin eventually understood how much Leahy was valued by Roosevelt and by the end of the war treated him with great respect. Churchill even asked Leahy if the two could establish a private channel of communication, but Leahy, not wanting to do anything that would seem disloyal to Roosevelt, declined.

With the worldview and experience that he held toward the end of his career, how may have Admiral Leahy judged U.S. national security strategy as it stands today?

When Leahy’s career drew to a close in 1948 he was conflicted about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He has sometimes been inaccurately portrayed as a simple, hardline Cold Warrior. Leahy had a far more nuanced view. He certainly wanted the United States to toughen up its policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union after the end of World War II, and did not believe the wartime alliance was going to continue. He also wanted the U.S. to support democratic movements around the world—in a mostly non-militarized way.

This points out the big difference between what Leahy believed and how he has been portrayed. While he had no confidence in the future of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. wartime alliance, he was also dead set against the U.S. turning into a world policeman, deploying troops around the world and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. He was particularly keen to keep the U.S. from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. That is why, when President Truman in early 1947 decided to intervene in Greece and Turkey, which is often seen as the start of the Cold War, Leahy was strongly opposed. He tried to change the president’s mind, but to no avail. When Truman decided to press ahead, Leahy, being the presidential servant that he was, publicly supported the move. However, his heart was not in it. Until the end of his time in office he did his best to keep the United States from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. He disagreed strongly with Truman over the U.S. decision to recognize Israel for instance, which he believed would lead to decades-long religious war in the region—a war that would eventually drag in the U.S. The differences between Truman and Leahy on the start of the Cold War and the Middle East were one of the reasons for the decline in Leahy’s influence from 1947 onward.

One might describe Leahy’s stance on foreign policy as robust non-interventionism. He was not apologetic about American power or influence, he just did not believe that much could actually be accomplished by interventions in other countries. In that sense, Leahy’s foreign policy vision could very well have resonance today. At the end of World War II the United States dominated world politics. It had half the world’s economic product and its most advanced armed forces. Though it is still the world’s leading power today, it is no longer as dominant as it was then. As such, the country could benefit by rethinking how and where it should involve itself in the world. A Leahy-like policy of greater restraint and less cost could be the natural choice for the U.S.

Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Born and raised in Boston, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before working on Wall Street for two years. He earned a PhD in British and American politics and naval policy before being selected as Cambridge University’s Mellon Research Fellow in American History and a Drapers Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Formerly at the University of Glasgow, he moved to St Andrews in 2016.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: Admiral William Leahy saluting on the reviewing stand during the Navy Day parade, on Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C., 27 October 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

The Norwegian Thunderbolt: Vice Admiral Peter Wessel

By LCDR Jason Lancaster

Introduction

Peter Wessel was only 10 when the Great Northern War started, and he was 30 when it ended in 1720. In nine brief years he rose from naval cadet to Vice Admiral. I first learned of Peter Wessel, also known popularly known as Tordenskjold (Thunder Shield), in a Danish film, Satisfaction 1720. The film depicted Tordenskjold as a depraved and lecherous idiot exploiting wartime victories which were stumbled upon through accident, and pursues a novel theory into his untimely death in a duel. This film led me to further explore both the Great Northern War and the life of this remarkable naval officer. Unsurprisingly, the movie’s account of his personality vastly differs compared to the few English language books about him. Although Denmark and Norway share streets and warships named after Tordenskjold, his name and deeds are largely unknown in the English speaking world. His exploits along the Baltic coast deserve remembering.

Sweden Ascendant

Sweden’s main political goal of the 17th century was the establishment of Dominium maris baltici, or Swedish domination of the Baltic Sea. Sweden’s defense of Protestantism and its major military contributions to the outcome of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had enabled Sweden to acquire a sizable portion of the Baltic coast and operate as the dominant power in the Baltic Sea. However, the British and Dutch prevented Sweden from exercising complete domination of the Baltic coast.

Sweden’s preeminence was resented by the other Baltic powers. In 1697 King Charles XI of Sweden died, leaving his fifteen year old son, Charles XII, on the throne. The other Baltic states saw their opportunities for territorial expansion. That year, Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia and Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, met in Dresden. The two men shared much in common; they were both tall, incredibly strong, and fond of drinking. They agreed to an alliance against Sweden. But despite their mutual desire for war, both needed time to prepare. Augustus had just been elected King of Poland with Peter’s help and needed more time to solidify his rule. Peter needed to conclude a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire before he could turn his attention to the Baltic. Both Peter and Augustus sought additional allies for war and found King Frederick IV of Denmark. The three nations formed an alliance to attack Sweden from all sides, overwhelm the boy-king, and divide the Swedish empire.

Map showing the development of the Swedish Empire in Early Morden Europe, 1560-1815. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately for the allied powers, despite Charles XII’s youth, he was no pushover. Charles XII demonstrated his military prowess by defeating each power in turn. Denmark was forced out of the war by August 1700, after the Swedes almost captured Copenhagen. The Saxon/Polish forces invaded Livonia, but were defeated, and Saxony/Poland was driven out of the war by 1706, with Augustus the Strong forced to cede the throne of Poland to a Swedish puppet. From 1702-1710, the Russians and Swedes fought over the coasts of Ingria and Karelia. Initially, the Swedes had the upper hand, winning victories at Narva (1700), but the Russians eventually pushed the Swedes back, and Peter established the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703 with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress. After Sweden’s crushing defeat at Poltava (1709), Augustus the Strong and Frederik IV rejoined Peter the Great along with George I, Elector of Hannover. In 1714, George was crowned King of Great Britain, bringing Britain into the conflict. In 1712, Frederich William Elector of Brandenburg and King in Prussia also joined the conflict, setting the stage for a rapidly escalating war. 

Peter Wessel joins the Navy

Peter Wessel was born the 14th child of a Trondheim merchant. His family owned multiple ships and several of his elder brothers served at sea in the Danish Navy or merchant marine. Peter wanted to follow in their footsteps, while his mother wanted him ashore either as a cleric or a member of whichever guild would accept him. School bored Peter, and he spent a great deal of time fighting bullies instead of studying his ablative absolutes. During the winter of 1704, at the age of 14, Peter ran away from apprenticeships as a tailor and barber-surgeon and set off on foot for Copenhagen to find himself an appointment to the Danish Naval Academy.

In 1704, King Frederick IV visited Trondheim, offering an opportunity. Peter Wessel hid himself amongst the royal retinue for the trip to Copenhagen. During the arduous trek across Norway, Peter observed how the king had cheerily received audiences of common people and spent time with them in stables and around campfires. Peter decided that he could reach out to the approachable king for help.

When Peter arrived in Copenhagen he called on his father’s old classmate, Dr. Jespersen, the King’s Chaplain. Peter told him his story, and asked for help getting into the Naval Academy. The king often visited Dr. Jespersen, and on one summer’s day in 1705, Peter asked the king for a naval academy appointment during his usual visit to Dr. Jespersen’s stable. Unfortunately, that year’s class had been shrunk by half to 52 cadets and there were no vacancies. King Frederick promised Peter that he would get a spot. While waiting for an appointment, Dr. Jespersen tutored Peter and taught him to channel his bountiful energy. Another year passed and still no appointment. Dr. Jespersen returned home from the palace one day with the king’s response, “no vacancies.”

Peter’s brother Henrik was a Danish Navy Lieutenant, although he had never actually served aboard a Danish warship, rather he had served on a Dutch man-of-war and was heading east to serve aboard a Russian warship. Henrik said Peter would benefit from time at sea aboard a merchant ship gaining experience until his appointment. Henrik had a Dutch shipmate who was Chief Mate aboard a Danish West Indiaman, Christianus Quintus, shortly bound for the West African coast for a cargo of slaves to sell in the Americas. Henrik got Peter a berth as the most junior of five cabin boys. Peter received valuable experience during the voyage in seamanship, gunnery, and navigation which prepared him for the Naval Academy and future voyages.

After two years at sea, Peter returned to Copenhagen. With still no naval academy appointment awaiting him, 18-year old Peter again wrote King Frederick detailing his experiences at sea and the king’s promise of an appointment. The letter failed to produce results, however, Peter was allowed to take the entrance exam and then join the Naval Academy as a volunteer with no pay or uniform until a billet opened in the class. Peter knew his father would pay his expenses and that he could continue to live with Dr. Jespersen.

Just as things were looking up, Peter received a letter from Trondheim. His family’s property had been destroyed during a fire. With no way to maintain himself at the naval academy, Peter signed on as a deck hand on a Danish East Indiaman bound for India. On October 5, 1708 Peter sailed for India, and during the journey his appointment as a cadet at the naval academy was signed by the king on January 11, 1709. During the voyage Peter was promoted to Boatswain’s Mate and then to 3rd Mate. In May 1710, Peter’s ship arrived off the Norwegian coast to learn that Denmark had re-entered the war against Sweden. The ship’s master was unwilling to risk the passage to Copenhagen through swarms of Swedish privateers and pulled into Bergen to await a convoy. Peter displayed the impatience which would bring him future battle glories and signed on as a sailor aboard a neutral British merchant ship bound for Germany via Copenhagen.

Major cities and scenes of battle for Peter Wessel in the Baltic (Author graphic)

Again, misfortune followed Peter. The ship became wind-bound in the Kattegat and pulled into Marstrand, Sweden. Peter was a Danish officer, not in uniform and dressed in English clothing meaning Peter could have been hung as a spy. Peter decided to have a look at the town while the ship was in port. He posed as a Dutch sailor and spoke to sailors, soldiers, and townsmen in the taverns and waterfront and observed the placement of batteries throughout the area. Once the British ship put to sea, Peter found a Danish warship to carry him to the Danish squadron under the command of Admiral Barfoed carrying the Governor-General of Norway Baron Løvendal. Peter reported aboard and then made his report to the two leaders. Baron Løvendal was impressed with both Peter’s demeanor and his clear reports on Swedish dispositions at Marstrand. The Baron had Peter assigned to his personal staff until Peter was able to be delivered to the naval academy.

Junior Officer

Peter started at the naval academy in September 1710. After three years before the mast, Peter found the curriculum boring. Again, he wrote to the king detailing his experiences and asking for a commission. In April 1711, Admiral Sehestad, the naval academy superintendent handed Peter his commission as a temporary sub-lieutenant and his orders to report to Postilion. Postilion’s executive officer billet was gapped, and Peter’s experiences at sea made him the most qualified officer aboard to fill the gapped XO billet. In less than a year, Peter had gone from naval cadet to XO of a frigate.

Postilion was a 26-gun frigate purchased from the French and assigned to convoy duty. The French had equipped Postilion with 26 twelve pounders, but the Danish Navy had downgraded them to six and eight pounders. The administrators of the Danish Navy preferred smaller cannon because they consumed less gunpowder which saved money. The tactical disadvantage was not a concern to them. The Postilion‘s convoy duties were slow, boring, and frustrating. Protecting merchant ships that might or might not want to stay in formation from one port to the next was not the exciting duty that an active junior officer sought.

After escorting a convoy to the town of Langesund, near Christiana, Peter went ashore with dispatches. He heard of a Norwegian, Jørgen Pedersen, constructing small ships called snows in Langesund for General Løvendal. Warships had not been constructed in Norway since the Vikings, but Peter was one of only two naval officers to visit the shipyard. The two Norwegians got along well, both because of Peter’s interest in the snows under construction and because Jørgen Pedersen had helped construct Postilion in France. The two discussed Peter’s current ship.

Peter knew that he would not make his name as XO of a frigate on convoy duty, but he had a plan. The new snows that Jørgen Pedersen was constructing needed captains. Who better than himself to take a small ship to harass the Swedes along the rock strewn coasts of Sweden? The governor general of Norway was still Baron Løvendal, whom Peter had served with before starting at the naval academy, and Peter brought him dispatches from Denmark. The two former shipmates discussed Peter’s rapid promotion, the Baron’s plans for the new snows being constructed, and the war in Norway. Peter left the Baron with an order to take command of one of Pedersen’s new snows, Ormen, which boasted a crew of 46 and mounted five cannons including two 4 pounders, two 2 pounders, and a single one pounder. After less than 12 months in the navy, Peter was captain of his own ship.

Løvendal’s Galei

Jørgen Pedersen not only constructed four snows for the Norwegian defense forces, but he also constructed an 18 gun frigate. In typical Danish fashion, she was under armed, boasting 12 six pounders and 6 four pounder guns. When the frigate was completed, Baron Løvendal appointed Peter the captain. In honor of his friend and patron, Peter named the ship Løvendal’s Galei. Peter desired to continue his depredations along the Swedish coast, but his frigate was often busy supporting the fleet in the Baltic campaign against Stralsund and convoy duty in the North Sea.

Previously as captain of the Ormen, Peter operated along the Swedish coast, capturing Swedish privateers and scouting for Baron Løvendal. Later, on 26 July 1714, Peter earned his most famous exploit from his time as captain of Løvendal’s Galei; a single ship duel with the 28-gun Swedish privateer Olbing Galei. The Swedish privateer was English built and captained by an Englishman. The two ships both approached under false colors. Olbing Galei under the English flag, and Løvendal’s Galei under Dutch colors. Once the vessels had neared they replaced the false flags with the flags of Sweden and Denmark. Despite the disparity in broadside, Løvendal’s Galei hit Olbing Galei hard causing major damage to the rigging, and then the two ships fought for 14 hours until Peter ran out of powder and shot.

With ammunition gone, Peter sent a messenger to Olbing Galei stating that the only reason he was not discontinuing the action out of cowardice, but only because he was out of ammunition. Peter asked for powder and shot to continue the fight. Captain Bachtman declined to give him the ammunition, ending the fight. The two captains then toasted each other as they sailed away.

Peter wrote his dispatches to two people, General Hausman, now in charge of Danish forces in Norway, and King Frederik in Denmark. From Norway, General Hausman sent Peter his hearty congratulations. From Denmark came court martial proceedings. Peter’s rapid promotions had created many enemies in the Danish Navy. The dispatch for the king was taken by one of Peter’s enemies and subsequently distorted to damage his career. Peter was charged with recklessly endangering his command by fighting a ship superior to his own and for disclosing valuable military secrets by telling the enemy ship that he lacked ammunition, and other unspecified charges. The Judge Advocate General proposed demoting Peter to sub-lieutenant and forfeiture of six months’ pay.

On December 15, 1714 the court martial concluded. 10 of 14 members of the court voted for acquittal. The court martial was composed of eight admirals and six commodores and captains. The four most junior members voted for Peter’s demotion. This vote reflected the bifurcated reputation of Peter Wessel. His rapid rise threatened many of his peers from sub-lieutenant to captain, however, admirals approved of his victories. Upon conclusion of the court martial Peter visited King Frederik. He brought two documents with him; acquittal papers from the court martial and an application for promotion to captain, which the king accepted. On December 28, 1714 Peter Wessel was promoted to captain.

Dynekilen

King Charles arrived in Stralsund, Swedish Pomerania in 1714 after having spent the past five years in Turkey. The city had been under siege since 1711. King Charles wanted to use Swedish Pomerania as a launching point for a renewed offensive against the Saxons and Russians. Unfortunately, Peter and the Danish fleet prevented Sweden from reinforcing Stralsund. Multiple times Peter’s ship fought larger more heavily gunned ships and prevented their relief of Stralsund. In December, 1715 the city fell to the Dano-Saxon-Prussian forces besieging the city. Charles XII might have been losing the war, but he was not going to make peace. Instead, he escaped from Stralsund and returned to Sweden to continue the war.

In October, 1715, in honor of Wessel’s work preventing the Swedish Navy’s reinforcement of Stralsund, he was knighted. His new name and title, Tordenskjold, meant thunder shield, in reference to his thundering attacks against the Swedes and his defense of Denmark.

In March, 1716, King Charles decided to invade Norway. He split his forces to simultaneously to attack Christiana and Frederikstad. The roads in this part of Norway were poor and often impassable, therefore Swedish supplies had to come by sea. Swedish forces took advantage of the rocky islands strewn across coastline between Marstrand and Frederikstad to run supplies from fortified point to fortified point to reach the army’s supply depots outside Frederikstad. The Swedes used shallow draft galleys that hid in inlets and coves where the deep draft Danish squadron could not go. If Denmark could sever the Swedish sea lines of communication (SLOCs) they could isolate the Swedish army and end the campaign. Danish Admiral Gabel wrote to Tordenskjold explaining the situation. Characteristically, he immediately sought action.

On 7 July 1716, Tordenskjold discovered a Swedish force at anchor behind a battery in deep in the Dynekilen Fjord, which featured between 14 and 29 Swedish transports as well as 15 escorts ranging from 24 to 5 guns each as well as a battery of 6 twelve pounders. Tordenskjold advanced into the fjord with four frigates and three galleys. Tordenskjold subsequently landed soldiers on the island to take the battery. The fire from his frigates overpowered the escorts; Stenbock surrendered, and the galleys crews attempted to ground and fire their vessels. Tordenskjold proceeded to take or burn as many transports as possible. Swedish soldiers began to arrive and threaten his position, but Tordenskjold calmly took his prizes and destroyed any ships he could not cut out and then sailed out of the fjord.

Disposition of forces at the Battle of Dynekilen (Author graphic)

The battle was a decisive victory for Denmark. According to Danish records, Tordenskjold had captured seven warships and 19 transports, but Swedish records however list Tordensjkjold as having captured seven warships and 14 transports. The actual numbers are less important than the result of the battle. Swedish forces besieging Frederikstad halted the siege and withdrew. Sweden’s offensive capabilities were crippled until 1718. As a result of his success, King Frederik promoted Tordenskold to Commodore (Rear Admiral).

Conclusion

Between 1716 and 1720 Tordenskjold continued to fight the Swedes. He attacked Swedish forces in Stromstad, Marstrand, and Goteborg. In nine brief years he rose from a naval cadet to the rank of Vice-Admiral in the Danish Navy. His seamanship, calmness amidst chaos, and intrepid leadership created opportunities for victory. His men loved him for his demeanor, but his rapid rise created enemies in the Danish officer corps. He was not the buffoonish character as seen in the film Satisfaction 1720; that man would never have succeeded at sea. 

In 1720, Denmark’s role in the Great Northern War ended. His heroism and seamanship played a major role in ensuring Denmark was on the victorious side of the conflict. Later, Peter contemplated marriage with an English aristocrat and service in the Royal Navy. But at the age of 30, Peter Wessel Tordenskjold was killed in a duel with Colonel Jacob Stael von Holstein over a game of cards. Tordenskjold’s second was Lieutenant Colonel Georg von Münchhausen, father of the famous Baron von Münchhausen. Today, Norway and Denmark both claim Tordenskjold as a hero. Both Denmark and Norway named warships after him, and today he is buried in Denmark. 

Monument to Peter Wessel Tordenskiold, Trondheim, Norway. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweden began the war as a major European power, and ended the war reduced to the status of a second rate power. With the exception of Swedish Pomerania, Sweden lost the entire southern rim of the Baltic. Russia demonstrated her arrival as a leading European power, gaining dominance over the eastern Baltic and a window to the west: the port cities of Saint Petersburg, Reval, and Riga.

Although Denmark was on the winning side of the war, she did not achieve her objectives. Although Denmark occupied Swedish Pomerania for five years after Stralsund fell, the province was returned to Sweden at the making of peace. The territories of Bohuslen and Scania remained Swedish. The maritime powers of Great Britain and the Netherlands would not allow one nation to control Øresund, the Kattegat, and Skagerak. The Baltic trade included valuable commodities for sea power, including cordage, tar, and trees. In order to maintain their maritime dominance, the maritime powers of Britain, France, and the Netherlands would not let a single nation control the entrance to the Baltic Sea and monopolize the trade. Denmark won the war, but lost the peace.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an MA from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Bibliography

Adamson, Hans Christian. Admiral Thunderbolt. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Company, 1959.

Anderson, M.S. Peter the Great. New York: Longman Group, 1995.

Anderson, Roger Charles. Naval Wars in the Baltic during the Sailing Ship Epoch, 1522-1850. London: C. Gilbert Wood, 1910.

Bjerg, Hans Christian. “På kanoner og pokaler.” Dankse Tordenskjold Venner. July 24, 1964. https://archive.is/20130212170512/http://www.danske-tordenskiold-venner.dk/tordenskiold/artikler/02_kanon_pokal.htm (accessed October 12, 2019).

Denner, Balthasar. “Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel.” Danish Museum of National History. Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel. Frederiksborg, Denmark, 1719.

Jonge, Alex de. Fire and Water: The LIfe of Peter the Great. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1980.

Molstead, Christian. On Guns and Cups, 1925.

Featured Image: “Paa kanoner og pokaler” (On guns and cups), depicting the episode 27th july 1714 where the danish frigate Lövendals Galley commanded by norwegian officer Tordenskjold encounters the swedish-owned, former english frigate De Olbing Galley on the swedish westcoast. After a long fight the danish ship runs out of gunpowder, and the ships part after a toast between the two opponents. (Book Strömstad : gränsstad i ofred och krig by Nils Modig, page 134, via Wikimedia Commons)