Category Archives: Interviews

Fleet Tactics Returns – A Conversation with Authors Wayne Hughes and Bob Girrier

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) and RADM Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) about the new edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations. We get into everything from why the littorals matter to how information warfare will shape the future of naval warfare.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, Fleet Tactics is now in its 3rd Edition. What are some of the new topics in this edition? Is there a particular section you focused on?

Girrier: Picking up where the 2nd edition left off, topics given additional emphasis in this edition are the emergence of unmanned systems (air, surface and sub-surface), artificial intelligence, and information warfare. 

The increasing value and the need for decision superiority is stressed. I did focus on the value-added of unmanned systems serving as complements to existing capabilities, and how – if properly employed – they can take us to a new level of fighting at machine speed. The process of sensing, evaluating, making decisions, and then executing is treated throughout.

Nelson: Artificial Intelligence, Information Warfare, Big Data lots of changes in the world and all of them will affect the future of warfighting. When you were tackling these topics, what were some of the books or resources you went to when trying to understand these new issues? 

Girrier: I drew heavily from my experience standing up the navy staff’s first-ever organization dedicated to unmanned warfare systems, and how we could harness these new capabilities most effectively in step with our existing force. It was a matter of applying the emergence of new technologies to the operational realities we tackle today.

Hughes: It is a long list. Here are some recent sources that emphasis information warfare, writ large, in peace and war, at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels:

John Arquilla, Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat, and the International System, 1992

Patrick Beesley, Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945, 1981

Alexander Bordetsky, Stephen Benson, and Wayne Hughes: “Hiding Comms in Plain Sight: Mesh Networking Effects Can Conceal C2 Efforts in Congested Littoral EnvironmentsSignal Magazine, June 2016

Jeffrey Cares and John Dickman, Operations Research for Unmanned Vehicles, 2016

Erik J. Dahl, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond, 2013

Dorothy Denning, Information Warfare and Security, 1999

Robert P. Girrier, “The Navy’s Mission for UxS,” Presentation January 2016

Robert P. Girrier, “Unmanned Systems: Enhancing Our Warfighting Capabilities Today and In the Future,” Navy Live, November 2015

Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea,” Naval War College Review, 2012

Tyson B. Meadors, First Gain the Victory: Six Strategic Considerations for Naval Cyber Forces, 2015

Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley, eds., The Art and Science of Military Deception, 2013

Peter W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, 2015

James P. Wisecup and the CNO Strategic Studies Group, The Network of Humans and Machines as the Next Capital Ship, July 2016

“Sandy” Woodward and Patrick Robinson, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, 1992

Nelson: To continue with the topic of technology, in your book, you say everyone should read Elting Morison. Who was he and why should everyone read his work?

Hughes: Elting E. Morison was one of our most astute observers of U. S Navy development, especially in peacetime. He described how USS Wampanoag was designed by master shipbuilder Benjamin Isherwood and commissioned to chase down Confederate raiders and privateers. When she was commissioned in 1869 she was the fastest ship in the world, having steamed for a long distance at 23 knots during her trials. Her speed would not be exceeded by another ship for two decades. But the war was over and so she was laid up and forgotten. There is more to the story, but Morison’s description, and his respect for Navy leadership during its thin years while the nation looked to the west toward California is an early story about complex, fiscally constrained decision-making that is pertinent today.

Nelson: Before I get to the next question, I’d like to quote a paragraph in the latter part of your book about Command and Control:

“Although military leaders at the scene of action and in the chain of command may bridle at the amount of control exercised from Washington in a crisis, the record of fifty years of crisis suggests that such control will continue. Detailed oversight of localized transitory military operations, even those involving shooting, has flowed—and probably will keep flowing directly from the seat of government to the tactical commander at the scene of action—because of its enormous political content.”

Nelson: So here’s my question: Doesn’t this assume that there is connectivity between tactical commanders and naval HQ or Joint HQ during conflict? Because if they lose connectivity or if it is degraded or destroyed, what then? Is it Mission Command?

Hughes: You cite one important reason—enemy interference—but in past and present editions of Fleet Tactics two more contrasting reasons are included describing why connectivity and well-honed skills at mission command are important. In peacetime on the edge of war the HQ including the national command authority in Washington will want to keep a tight rein on the participants out of fear that some major or colonel will be a loose cannon and shoot too soon and start World War IV. But when the shooting starts, a headquarters will be saturated with too many events and if commanders who are accustomed to top-down control wait for directions from on high the orders may not arrive on time. Moreover mission command is necessary in wartime because the local commander, including the ship captain or Marine Company Commander will have a better knowledge of the local enemy and conditions. In the botched Iranian Rescue Mission, some of our helicopters already en route turned back because a dust storm rose which the local meteorologist was aware of, but the weather guessers in Washington were not.

Girrier: Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations acknowledges the reality of crisis operations short of war, and the need to wield combat power with great precision that is completely in step with national intent. At times this may be a connection from higher echelons down to the more tactical level. There are nuances in these circumstances – at the strategic and operational levels – that shift and the on-scene level won’t be aware of…can’t be aware of. 

Conversely, as circumstances deteriorate and connectivity becomes challenged, there is great value in mission command and acting on commander’s intent.  We place great value on initiative and the high quality of our commanders from the tactical to operational levels.  Traversing these levels with agility and speed is critical to combat success.

Nelson: What do you think the 21st Century missile age means for naval warfare? Numerous countries now have long range maritime weapons. Yet do you think we might see a naval war in which range is defeated  not entirely, but largely by decoys and counter C4ISR? Do we then end up in a situation with a destroyer’s Commanding Officer realizing they’ll have to use weapons when they are within visual range of an enemy combatant? 

Girrier: The 21st century missile age brings faster and longer range lethality. At the same time, the areas where we may be called to action – where influence and combat capability is needed – may draw us into the littorals. By virtue of geography, the inherent challenges of targeting, and ever-increasing countermeasures, the ability to survive in these highly lethal environments is possible – it requires great skill, a mix of awareness, speed of decision, and speed of action.

Hughes: Fighting in the missile age is also affected by the effects of clutter of all kinds in coastal waters. Offensive tactics that achieve surprise attacks at relatively short range make littoral waters different from blue waters where we must control the seas and therefore must have strong but expensive defenses.

Nelson: So that’s why the littorals matter?

Girrier: It’s where the sea meets land and where combat effects – from the sea –  can have decisive effects to larger campaigns.

Hughes: Most combat at sea has been in littoral waters for some purpose connected to the land. That has been true since Greek and Roman times and is likely to be just as true in the future. Currently the most likely locations of future battles involving our Navy, including land-sea interactions, are the Baltic, Aegean, and Eastern Mediterranean, the Persian (or “Arabian”) Gulf, the South and East China Seas, and the Yellow Sea. Since a cornerstone of Fleet Tactics was and still is “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” today’s naval officers must consider carefully what is meant by a “fort” today.

Nelson: How do we tackle the problem on bridging the divide between the knowledge found in tactical publications and actual operator skill?

Hughes: Achieving operator proficiency is the topic of the book. For example, we have little praise for the principles of war and instead promote the study of constants, trends, and variables over history as the way to avoid preparing to fight the last war. The missile age and the longer range of weapons and sensors have changed the tactical needed to attack effectively first at sea since combat was carrier-centric in World War II. Since our subject is Fleet Tactics the greater emphasis is on achieving tactical success as a fleet commander or commanding officer. However we do not neglect the roles of operators in a command center or CIC. The reader will learn a great deal about the evolution of the Combat Information Center and how it increased the effectiveness of radar and sonar as World War II wore on. We also illustrate by describing the remarkable tactical skills exhibited by the Israeli Navy: commanders, shooters, defenders, deceivers, and the whole crew of each ship when the Israeli navy decisively defeated the Syrian and Egyptian missile ships in the 1973 war. That said, we shy away from speculation about the skills needed in the modern American navy. Instead, we stress the need for more at-sea combat exercises to get our operators ready to fight the age of missile salvos, unmanned vehicles, and information warfare.

Girrier: I would emphasize the timelessness of the ability to “attack effectively first” – this captures it all.  The required end state. The means to achieve that end evolves. Hence the imperative to understand the constants… trends… and variables of warfare. To prevail requires study of the foregoing, plus knowing one’s own capabilities and how to employ them with the utmost degree of effectiveness. Successful leaders will master the fusion of talent plus technology.

Nelson: Could you give us an example of how a net-centric war might look in the future?

Hughes: Network centric warfare is exhibited by today’s carrier battle groups and expeditionary strike groups, both of which must radiate continuously and unfailingly to be effective in the face of an enemy who will detect the radiations and attempt a sudden surprise attack. We emphasize the need to develop the ways and means to conduct our own surprise attacks by offensive action, especially in confined waters where an enemy navy must control his own seas with warships that must radiate to protect his shipping from our almost silent, well-practiced, sneak attacks including submarine attacks. We call this network optional warfare.

Girrier: I agree with Wayne, it’s not all one or the other. The future will likely show that a mix of techniques, capabilities and competencies will be required. That warfare will exhibit hybrid characteristics and one’s agility in traversing disparate approaches will be of great value.

Nelson: You’ve both been writing and publishing for years. If you would, walk us through your writing process. How do you research a topic and bring it to print? Outline? No outline? Pen and paper or straight to the computer?

Girrier: My writing has been fueled by my direct operational experience. What did I know, when did I not know, and what did I wish I knew when I was serving in various positions throughout my career. I compile these nuggets, reflect on their merit (maybe these were things I “should have known” but didn’t place enough value on). Always compose an outline as it helps order my thoughts. Then proceed. I must say, a big part of these projects  – especially when working updates and new editions – is the very serious responsibility of preserving hard-earned lessons. The voice of experience speaking through decades of operations. To update is one thing, maintaining relevance and currency; to preserve the deepest lessons and explain them in readily understood language is perhaps the hardest element in these projects.

Hughes: Taking a macro perspective, my prescription for success was background in four aspects of tactics and combat: (1) Experience at sea. Combat experience at sea helps, and though my ships have only been shot at twice I think the experience of incoming rounds is better yet if you survive them. (2) Knowledge of naval history. I had the joy of teaching it as a lieutenant at the Naval Academy among a cadre of the best historians in the country. (3) Experience with operations analysis, past and present, especially with tours applying it on fleet staffs. And (4) hands-on experience with tactical development to fully exploit new technologies, both onboard ship and on fleet staffs.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, how did you get involved with Admiral Stavridis and the USNI’s Professional Series books?

Girrier: Admiral Stavridis invited me to join him in this ongoing “professional series” project. It was both an invitation and a call to “get involved” and help make our Navy stronger. I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity. I’ve seen it as both a privilege and a duty.  Our work on the Division Officer’s Guide, Watch Officer’s Guide and Command at Sea has all been pro-bono – I see that as consistent with the mission. It’s a team effort and most recently we’ve brought aboard CAPT Jeff Heames and CDR Tom Ogden (both post CDR-Command officers) contributing to the Division Officer’s Guide and the Watch Officer’s Guide.

Nelson: Gentlemen, I want to close with two questions: What advice would you give naval officers today about how best to prepare for future conflict? And second, what’s the hardest thing the U.S. Navy must tackle to improve either as individual officers or as an organization going forward? 

Girrier: Future arms races and conflict is all about the “race for cognition.” To understand, then act, faster than the adversary. This applies at all levels of conflict. If you own decision superiority, you know when to fight, and when to parry. You must know how, when, and where to create the conditions of tactical overmatch. Cognition means knowing your systems and tactics so completely, that when it comes time to act – your execution is reflexive. This takes training and empowerment of your people, and most importantly – focus and discipline. There are only so many hours in a day, these must be one’s priorities – period.

Hughes: I worked for VADM Ike Kidd when he was Commander First Fleet in San Diego. He emphasized combat readiness if the shooting started tomorrow. Admiral Kidd was influenced by the fact that his father was killed in USS Arizona when she was sunk during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But Ike also taught everyone to looking ahead at emerging technologies that would change tactics and combat in the future. His last duty was in overseeing the Navy’s technological development. Pertinent to what Bob says about focus and discipline, recently the surface navy suffered serious collisions with merchant ships. Navy officers today should ponder this: if our fighting ships can’t avoid big, slow ships that do not want to hit us, how well are we prepared to avoid small, very fast missiles that do?

Girrier & Hughes: The technology that surrounds us – and is available to our adversaries – must be harnessed and put to the most effective use as rapidly as possible.  Integrating these disruptive technologies challenge our existing systems, procedures, and operational techniques. We are a large and powerful force, with tremendous investment in existing capital assets – that fact can impede true innovation and the adoption of more lethal effects. Our adversaries know this, and are constantly looking at ways to defeat us. Information warfare is evolving very quickly and we must never be complacent in this regard. We must continually adapt, and do so with speed.

Nelson: This was great. Thank you, gentlemen.  

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the US Naval Institute.

Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) is the president of Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based nonprofit, private foreign policy research institute providing timely, informative, and innovative analysis of political, security and strategic developments in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. He is founder and managing member of StratNav/Strategic Navigation LLC, a consulting company. He is a naval leader with over thirty years’ maritime experience and extensive operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Europe and Middle East.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer currently stationed in the Pacific. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 1, 2017) The guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) launches a SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Zachary Van Nuys/Released)

Learning War and The Evolution of U.S. Navy Fighting Doctrine with Author Trent Hone

By Christopher Nelson

Author Trent Hone joins us today to talk about his new book Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. This is a great book. And as others have noted, it’s a fine compliment to John Kuehn’s work on the Navy General Staff, Scott Mobley’s book Progressives in Navy Blue, and I would add, Albert Nofi’s To Train The Fleet For War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

We talk about everything from Admiral Frank “Friday” Fletcher to “safe-to-fail” systems vs. “fail-safe” systems. And stick around to the end. Trent Hone offers some advice to the CNO on how we can build a better learning organization.

Nelson: For the readers, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Hone: My book investigates how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century learned to innovate. I explore how the Navy invented new technologies, created new tactics, and found ways to rapidly evolve its combat doctrine based on peacetime exercises and wartime experience. Today, we would describe the Navy of that era as a “learning organization.” I explain what that means and describe the mechanisms the Navy used to effectively learn and innovate. I believe there are lessons from that time that are very relevant for today’s organizations, both military and civilian.

Nelson: Why did you want to write this book?

Hone: I’ve been interested in naval tactics for a long time. I remember reading Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics when it first came out in the 1980s and being fascinated (It’s a great book now on its third edition). In the 1990s, I decided to explore the Navy’s surface warfare tactics before and during World War II. I wanted to know what Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have done if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked. That research led to a series of articles on the development of Navy tactics—including a prize-winning one in the Naval War College Reviewand, ultimately, began to overlap with other work I was doing. 

I started my career as a software engineer. As I assumed positions of greater responsibility, what became most interesting to me was not the development of the software, but how teams organized to create software and do innovative work. I studied various techniques and methods to improve the teams I supervised and eventually transitioned into advising and coaching organizations to help them get better at learning and innovating. 

As I continued looking at the evolution of the Navy’s tactical doctrine in the early twentieth century, I saw patterns that resonated with today’s most-effective learning techniques. The language was quite different, and the specific processes were different, but some of the underlying principles were remarkably similar. I realized it was a story that had to be told. I describe an arc of innovative creativity that stretches back decades by charting the evolution of surface warfare tactics.

Nelson: Early in the book you talk about “fail-safe” systems and “safe to fail” systems. The latter, you say, are best for a culture that encourages innovation. With this in mind, what would you say Rickover’s submarine culture consisted of? Is he a rare exception in the case of a system that is “fail-safe” yet innovative?

Hone: I’m glad you brought this up. Alicia Juarrero’s term “safe to fail” gives us a new way to think about failure modes and how to account for them. The key difference between the two is that with “fail-safe” we attempt to anticipate possible failure modes and design ways to mitigate them. With “safe to fail,” we recognize unanticipated failure modes will occur and organize to ensure survival when they do. This has relevance to organizations because when we want to learn and innovate, we are going to fail. A “safe to fail” organization finds ways to explore new ideas and experiment with them without endangering its long-term survival. The Navy was good at that in the early twentieth century. 

I’m less familiar with Rickover’s time, but from what I understand, it would be inaccurate to describe the culture he developed as primarily “fail-safe.” Certainly, it used procedures with rigidly prescribed steps in order to prevent known failures, so in that sense it was “fail-safe.” However, he recognized that unanticipated failure modes can and will occur. Defined procedures are inadequate to account for these circumstances. Instead, it’s essential to rely on the collective skill and experience of people, so the culture integrated crewmembers together. Layers of human observation and experience became the means to identify, anticipate, and address unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, the culture has a “safe to fail” component. Things will go wrong; people will make mistakes. But trust and experience become the means to identify and resolve them. 

As it turns out, that’s the most effective way to deal with problems in complex environments. Standard procedures and automated routines free our mental capacity so that when unforeseen circumstances arise, we can quickly identify and address them. That’s what made the Combat Information Center (CIC) and its successors effective: the artful integration of standard processes, technology, and human judgment. I worry that with the increasing emphasis on automated systems, we might be taking the talents of our people too far out of the loop. There’s no substitute for human experience and skill when the unanticipated occurs. 

Nelson: What is the “edge of chaos” and why does it matter to any organization that is trying to be innovative?

Hone: The concept of the “edge of chaos” is easily misunderstood, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly. In any complex system—like a corporation or a military service—there are processes, procedures, and rules. In the language of complexity, these are called “constraints.” They channel and limit behavior. When constraints are restrictive, they inhibit the ability of people to experiment and try something new. Obviously, that’s a problem if you want to innovate. But the other end of the spectrum is problematic also. If constraints are too loose, there’s no coherence; it becomes difficult to assign cause and effect or make sense of an experiment. The “edge of chaos” is located between these two extremes. It is a space where constraints are sufficiently loose to allow room to explore new ideas and concepts but also rigid enough to focus that exploration and provide feedback on its effectiveness. 

Many of us intuitively understand this from our own experience. Software teams, for example, are most innovative (and generally most effective) when they’re given a clear objective and the creative freedom to determine how best to accomplish it. The objective serves as a constraint and focuses their energy. They use their initiative to explore several potential solutions, often arriving at the best combination of technologies that addresses the need. That’s why there’s been such an emphasis on moving away from rigidly detailed requirements documents; they overly constrain teams and limit their creativity. The parallels to military command, and the importance of well-written orders that foster the initiative of subordinates, are obvious. 

Nelson: What was the importance of the 1921 Destroyer Instructions?

Hone: The Atlantic Fleet’s 1921 Destroyer Instructions were important for two reasons. It was the first Navy doctrinal manual produced by a deliberately created system of learning. Immediately after World War I, the Navy was transitioning back to peacetime. Many valuable lessons had been learned during the war and officers set out to capture them. Two “colleges” were established, one in the Atlantic Fleet and another in the Pacific Fleet. They combined exercises at sea, wargames ashore, and experience from the recent war to devise new approaches. A regular correspondence was maintained between these two fleet colleges and the Naval War College. The result of their collective learning was incorporated into the Destroyer Instructions. 

The Destroyer Instructions were also important because they assumed individual commands—each destroyer squadron—would develop their own specific doctrines that reflected the strength of their ships and men. The Instructions were deliberately written to foster creativity within subordinate commands and avoid being overly prescriptive. The War Instructions of 1923 took the same approach, so Navy officers spent the interwar period exploring a variety of options for how to coordinate and employ their forces, leading to new and innovative techniques.

Nelson: Who was Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher? What were his battle instructions? And why are they an important milestone in naval history?

Hone: Frank Friday Fletcher led the intervention at Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct. In September 1914, he became commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which contained the Navy’s most modern ships. The Atlantic Fleet had been regularly conducting exercises to work out how best to operate in battle, and Fletcher continued that practice. By May 1916, he and his staff had gained enough experience to issue a set of Battle Instructions. 

Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.

Fletcher’s Instructions marked a departure from previous approaches. He assumed battle was fundamentally uncertain and that centralized control would likely be impossible; this led him to emphasize two things. The first was the use of a plan that would outline objectives for subordinates. Fletcher wanted to encourage their individual initiative and creativity without overly constraining them. Second, Fletcher stressed the coordinated use of all weapons. Previous battle plans had emphasized battleship gunnery. Fletcher recognized that other weapons were coming into their own, particularly destroyer torpedoes. He planned to use his destroyer squadrons very aggressively. These two concepts—the use of a plan and coordinated employment of all arms—remained central to Navy tactical doctrine through World War II.  

Nelson: I enjoyed your comment about “type commanders.” You note in your book that during World War II that minor actions were neglected.  This mattered. And type commanders were born in light of these shortcomings. What were these “minor actions” and how did the type commanders address them?

Hone: The Navy’s primary focus in the interwar period (1919-1939) was a trans-Pacific campaign. It was expected to culminate in a “major action”—a large fleet battle—somewhere in the central Pacific. Accordingly, most of the fleet-level tactical doctrine focused on “major action.” Tactics for “minor actions”—engagements between smaller task forces—were left to subordinate commanders. It was assumed that these lower-level commanders would have time to develop doctrines for their forces, and, during peacetime, this assumption was largely correct. 

However, there were shortcomings. This led to the introduction of the type commands in 1930.

Type commands became responsible for identifying and capturing new tactical approaches for each various type—destroyers, cruisers, battleships, etc.—and there is evidence that new approaches were more rapidly developed after that date. The real problem, though, was the assumption that subordinate commands would be able to develop specific doctrines for their forces. 

In 1942, that process fell apart during the battles off Guadalcanal. Ships and commanders moved about too rapidly to develop cohesion. “Scratch teams” were formed and they often performed poorly, as you might expect. The Pacific Fleet addressed the problem by applying some of the same techniques used for “major tactics” to “minor tactics” and leveraging the type commands to rapidly share and disseminate lessons. 

Nelson: During World War II, how did the Fleet quickly inform commanders with updated doctrine? This is a problem throughout history, is it not? We make some assessments on what will or will not work in war, and inevitably we will be surprised. What would you recommend to a staff today on how to prepare for such things?

Hone: I love this question because when I first started my research decades ago, I thought that manuals—published doctrinal materials—would be the key to understanding tactical doctrine. I learned very quickly that’s not the case. Doctrine is a set of assumptions and mental models. The documentation provides a backdrop, but what really matters is how individuals think about problems and work together. During World War II, the Navy effectively used personal connections, like in-person conversations and conferences, to rapidly share and disseminate new ideas. There were formal means to do this (like Joseph C. Wylie being brought back from the South Pacific to help develop the CIC) but informal mechanisms were at least as important. Published doctrine tended to lag behind the information shared through these informal networks.

USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, 20 May 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

If I were making recommendations, I’d stress the importance of informal mechanisms. Staffs can easily create mountains of briefings and other documentation. What’s more difficult is creating an environment where subordinates can readily exchange information, learn together, and build on the knowledge of their colleagues. I think a staff should actively work on enabling that. It’s not just about creating space and time; it’s about introducing the appropriate constraints to enable creativity to flourish. Then, once that is in place, the staff needs to keep tabs on what’s happening. New, more effective ideas will arise. When they do, the staff needs to act quickly to exploit them and make them available to the entire command. 

Nelson: How does the size of a navy – the number of ships and sailors – affect innovation? Quick growth, during World War II, for example, and steep reductions – ship numbers from the 80s to today for instance, do these affect innovation in different ways? How?

Hone: I think both offer serious challenges. The rapid growth in World War II made it very difficult to maintain the effective culture the Navy had nurtured during the early twentieth century. Rapid “scaling” (as we call it in the software world) tends to increase centralization, reduce flexibility, and inhibit innovation. That happened to the Navy as it grew during the war. 

The challenge I see with steep reductions is overburdening. Organizations often reduce their size without an equivalent reduction in their commitments. This leads to overwork: people become spread too thin; maintenance gets delayed; and equipment is overutilized. Individuals may still be able to sustain the pace of operations, but they frequently lose the ability to experiment with new ideas. Innovation slows as a result. When commitments are reduced along with reductions in size—as with the Navy after World War I—this can be avoided. 

Nelson: Trent, to close, if you had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations and he asked you what he needed to do to create a learning organization – what would you say?

Hone: I had about thirty seconds with Admiral Richardson last year when he presented me with the second-place award for his Naval History Essay Contest, and in those thirty seconds, I encouraged him to read my book. If I had ten minutes, I’d urge him to introduce a set of integrated feedback loops that couple regular experimentation regarding the nature of future war (tactics, technology, etc.) and OPNAV’s programming process. The goals would be twofold. First, officers need to be encouraged to regularly experiment to vary their tactical approaches to discover new, more effective techniques. They need to become accustomed to adjusting to unanticipated circumstances and leveraging the creativity of their commands. Second, the lessons from their experimentation need to revise and guide the Navy’s program so that force structure and procurement reflect—and ultimately anticipate—the new learning. 

We’re all familiar with the interwar Fleet Problems. What made them really powerful—what allowed them to transform the Navy—was the way they were integrated into the Navy’s planning and procurement processes. The second CNO, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, was primarily responsible for that. He created the feedback loops that allowed the Navy to not just experiment with new tactical doctrines, but to evolve force structure and war plans in light of emerging lessons. If Admiral Richardson wants “high-velocity learning,” if he wants to fully leverage the skills of the Navy’s officers, he needs to devise a set of similar mechanisms. Given the organizational changes since Coontz left office in 1923, a new set of structures and interfaces would have to be introduced. I have faith Admiral Richardson could do that, if he sets his mind to it. 

Trent Hone is an award-winning naval historian and a Managing Consultant with Excella in Arlington, VA. He is an expert on U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. His article, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific” was awarded the U.S. Naval War College’s Edward S. Miller Prize and the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Ernest M. Eller Prize. His essay, “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second place in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. He regularly writes and speaks about organizational learning, doctrine, strategy, and how the three interrelate. His latest book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in June 2018.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: USS Indiana (BB-58) fires a salvo from her forward 16″/45 guns at the Kamaishi Plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. 

Disciplining the Empire — Dr. Sarah Kinkel on the Eighteenth-Century British Royal Navy

By Christopher Nelson

Author and Professor Sarah Kinkel joins us to discuss her new book Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy.

Nelson: Professor Sarah Kinkel, thank you so much for spending some time with me today to talk about your fascinating new book, Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy. Let’s start with your time as a student at Yale, where you got your Masters and later a PhD in history. How was your experience at Yale?

Kinkel: I actually majored as an undergraduate in Political Science and International Relations, and I thought that would be a direction I would be interested in going. I ended up with an accidental minor in history because they were always my favorite classes. So anytime I had a chance for an elective, it was always a history class.

Like a lot of twenty-two-year-olds, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I took a couple of years off between undergraduate and graduate school. I thought about what kind of path I might want to be on, and I kept coming back to the fact that if all my favorite classes were history classes, and I ended up with this minor in it, then that was pretty compelling evidence that this was something that I was really interested in.  

It fascinates me to think about people’s lives and their experiences from the past and some of the systems they built to manage uncertainty. To me it really is one of the things I like about history because it encourages you to think in big picture ways and ask questions about the way societies work and what holds them together. And I think you can ask similar types of questions about societies throughout history. While I was at Yale I was a teacher’s assistant for a class on the Roman Empire. It was great; I learned so much. I didn’t know any more going into the class than the students did. But my training in early modern Europe helped me think about some of the religious, political, and social changes during the days of the Roman Empire.

I had a fantastic time at Yale. I really couldn’t say enough great things about the program, about my mentors. I came in knowing I wanted to do something with British imperial historybut not sure quite what. I was working with Steve Pincus, who is a historian of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Empire. And then, as I started to gravitate toward a more naval focus, I also worked closely with Paul Kennedy. Both Kennedy and Pincus where fantastic mentors and great advisors.

One of the things I really appreciated about Yale was the fact that even if I had a professor and even if I only had one class with them, they were all so generous with their time. I expected when I came in as graduate student that some of the professors would blow me offI mean, these are incredibly busy, important people, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians. But they were always so generous with their time. And they seemed interested in working with graduate students. That was something that I really appreciated about being there.

Nelson: What was your favorite class at Yale?

Kinkel: My favorite classand in the big scheme, it influenced my thoughts about my bookwas actually a class in the political science department with professor Vivek Sharma. It was a class on the social and cultural history of violence. The class covered how we can understand violence in warfare but also in societies. We use violence against our enemies, but we also use it to police the boundaries of our communities. There’s always an acceptable form of violencebut what is it? It was a class about thinking about the connections between societies and the way that violence is carried out.

That class to me was so eye opening. We talked about everything from chivalry to genocide. Thinking about warfare in that context, as not being something that is culturally neutral, that was interesting to me and sowed seeds for my graduate work, as it turned out.

Nelson: I want to touch on military studies in academia. In my opinion military history is undervalued or not even represented in many university curricula. They simply don’t include history courses on warfare. Of course, there is the U.S. Civil War, which pops up in many history programs for various reasons. But if you’re an undergraduate or even a graduate student today, it’s hard to find a program that really digs into the history of warfare. Do you agree? Your thoughts?

Kinkel: I think it is probably true to say that military history has been sidelined. I think that one of the good things about how we are doing history now as opposed to fifty years ago is that we are asking different types of questions and we are including the history of different types of people. That is all good. But I’m sorry that there isn’t more interest in taking something that is as important and world shaping as warfare and violence seriously. Military history is really, really important. To me, that means less the discussion of operational movements or tactical movements of forces in a battlethat’s not what I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s important to military professionals, like yourself, of course, to focus on and to learn. But what I want to focus on is how military and politics connect and affect each other.

Still, I agree with your assessment. There is not much of a presence for military history in academia today. And when military history is included, I’m still not sure it’s as embedded in the bigger picture of decisions, consequential events, and other social factors as it should be. 

Nelson: What is it about the British Royal Navy that fascinates you?

Kinkel: I originally came to the Royal Navy as a historical fan girl. My grandfather was in the U.S. Navy. I don’t know if that influenced my father. But my father has always been a big history lover. We’d sit around the dinner table at home and he would tell us Horatio Nelson stories. I started being drawn in to some of those classic naval myths. Of course, they’re not all myths, but there is some mythology around them. When I was able to travel to England and see Nelson’s bullet-ripped uniform in the National Maritime Museum, wow, it is such a compelling series of stories. I started to wonder why British naval captains fought that way when not everybody did. It seemed to me that the naval histories I read left it at ‘Well, they were British, so it must make sense.’ I’m not sure that is a compelling historical answer.

Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Bullet Ridden Uniform (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: For the readers, briefly, how would describe your book?

Kinkel: This is a book that explains the eighteenth-century rise of the Royal Navy by integrating that story with the major political debates of the century. Other books have explained how Britain was able to build the world’s most dominant naval force, and have pointed to elements like geography, economy, institutions, and battle culture—which are all important but don’t necessarily take into account the fact that there were real arguments over the form and function of the navy. This book explains why some people (but not others) thought an aggressive, powerful, and disciplined navy would be a good idea, and how that battle culture was actually created, because it wasn’t innate.

I think that for far too long naval history and political history have been kept separate. That is just stunning to me. The Royal Navy was the single largest organization of people and resources in the entire empire. It was inherently political. We know how deeply divided the British Empire was over issues like the constitution; over the question of who gets to hold authority in society; over what the empire should look like. And the navy was fundamentally tied to those questions.

Nelson: In your introduction you refer to “political contestation” as a topic that is rarely covered. Is this what you are referring to–issues over political authority–when you say “political contestation”?

Kinkel: Yes. Absolutely. A lot of people in the eighteenth century agreed that there were problems facing British Imperial society. They disagreed fundamentally about what the most important problems were and how to solve them.

Nelson: I enjoyed learning about some the historic figures in your book. Who were some of the consequential personalities that shaped the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century? What were the governing bodies that ran that navy back then?

Kinkel: It is a navy that changes over time during the eighteenth century. It starts out and continues to be a complex set of overlapping bureaucracies. There’s five different bureaucratic boards that have authority over different aspects of naval affairs. We tend today to think about the Admiralty as the first and foremost of the organizations. It became that way, but during the time period I focus on,  in theory the Admiralty only has control over officers and ships that are currently in service. The Navy Board, which is a separate institution, and coequal to the Admiralty Board, has control over shipbuilding, dockyards, and supplies. There’s an Ordnance Board and there’s also a Sick-and-Hurt Board that deals with invalid sailors. So the Admiralty can’t really tell the other boards what to do. At the beginning of the century, it is not clear what kind of role, if any, that the Admiralty might actually have in shaping policy. The head of the Admiralty Board is not automatically a cabinet position. There’s even periods in the first decade of the eighteenth century where there isn’t an Admiralty Boardthey decide they just don’t need it.

There’s no one person who is clearly responsible for everything that is happening in the navy. In the early years of the century, the most powerful people were the admirals themselves. They had small fiefdoms over their ships, patronage, and recruitment. Even in the early 1740s there’s a period where George II lets one of the senior admirals have command over all of the ships in home waters without having to go through the Admiralty first.

This, as you can imagine, is chaotic. It is up to individuals in different bureaucracies to make things happen. If you have political capital and energy, this helps. But it is up to individuals who hold particular positions. We start to see a change in the middle of the 1740s. In December of 1744 there is a new group of Admiralty commissioners who come into the Admiralty Board. They are a combination of politicians and sea officers. They start to institute a series of naval reforms. And this is the core of my book. So at that point, you see the Admiralty Board start to increasingly assert itself politicallyin Parliament, among politicians, monopolizing authority over other boards, and officers as wellbut at the same time they put in place naval reforms that were designed to strengthen and centralize the control over this massive, sprawling bureaucratic structure.

John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (Wikipedia Commons)

Naval historians have attributed these reforms to one of  the sea officers who came in to this Admiralty Board in 1744George Ansonhe’s newly famous and had just circumnavigated the globe, plundered the Spanish, and he’s quite popular. Yet I think this attribution is misplaced because in my opinion, the reforms come more from two of the politicians who joined this board: John Russell, the fourth the Duke of Bedford, and John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. These politicians come in and make changes that they want to see in the British Empire, and British society, and they do so by using the navy to accomplish some of those goals.

Nelson: I want to turn to British Naval professionalism. When does the British Navy realize that they need to professionalize? What does that actually mean? For example, I don’t believe they even had a standard naval uniform in the early eighteenth century, correct?

Kinkel: Great question. I don’t think there is a consensus about the question of professionalism in the eighteenth century. There was always disagreement and push-back to professionalizing the naval force. And I’ll get into those reasons in a moment.

We start to see the argument for professionalization in the 1730s, and then it really comes forward in the 1740s. Britain is once again involved in a colonial imperial struggle with France and with Spain. It doesn’t go well for the Royal Navy. The one lone exception is Admiral Edward Vernon who has a much celebrated victory at Porto Bello. The navy is just not doing well in the war. There are lots of metrics that people are using to indicate how poorly they’re performing. Merchant ships are reporting that naval convoys abandoned them to privateers; there are navy captains fleeing in the face of numerically inferior forces; and there are lots of public pamphlets that say that sea officers aren’t thirsty for French blood, they are thirsty for French wineand they don’t want to spill a drop of either. Professionalism, then, is put forward as one possible answer to these issues.

To me, I think it means that they need to make the navy look more like a professional standing army. Because now they have ideas and examples to go by. We know the standing army revolution has already happened a century before. I think they want to create something similarI call it a permanent standing navythat is going to be there in war, and it is going to be there in peacetime. So now you are going to get career officers, trained and disciplined sailors, standardized processes, and a clear hierarchical command. This is going to be a navy that can be trusted to behave reliably. Once an order has gone out, it will be followed or there will be consequences. You’re absolutely right to point out that in the context of these reforms, this is the first naval uniform. In the decades previous, you couldn’t necessarily tell who is in the navy and who is not. There is not a uniform to mark people out. Ships at various pointsmerchant ships for examplewere co opted into royal fleets for battles in the 17th century. And were still  privateers on the oceansthese are private ships of wars.

Even in constitutional theory, sailors were understood to be in the navy in so far as their name is listed in the ship’s books. If your name is not listed in the ship’s books, then you aren’t in the navy anymore. And for officers, there wasn’t a coherent career path. In the late seventeenth century, you might be a gunner in one ship, and then you might be a lieutenant on the next, and then go on to the merchant marine force.

Professionalizing the force is meant to transform this navy into something of permanence, something that is reliable and clearly marked out from civilian ships, from private naval warfare. The people who want professionalization are pretty skeptical of private violence, which could be in the hands of just anyone, and really want something that is clearly not that.

Nelson: What are some examples of how the Royal Navy incentivized behavior at sea?

Kinkel: This is one of the areas that I want to push back against the classic story about the military revolution and how it happened and its effects on society. One version goes like this: There’s transformation in technology that then forced transformation in warfare and then that in turn forced changes in politics and society, and that’s how you get the modern state. Now, again, that’s one argument. I think it’s not completely wrong, but in this case it’s also not completely right.

There is no transformation in technology in the British Navy in the course of the eighteenth century that suddenly makes officers and ships better fighters. There’s a couple of tweaks. We get copper sheathing for example, late in the century. It makes ships more sustainable in the longer-term in warmer waters. But what we’re fundamentally talking about are changes in behavior. One of the conundrums this Admiralty Board faces is that you can’t directly supervise what your officers are doing at sea. By definition if you want to have a navy that you can send to project power to the far sides of the world, it is going to partially be out of your control. That’s why it is so important to have officers that you believe are reliable. So they think a lot about how do you constrain and shape behavior. There is an emphasis, to some extent, on training–certainly there is an emphasis on training a ship for combat.

There was some skepticism in British society about whether you could train officers on shore or if you needed to send officers to sea to train and learn the profession practically. There were some new investments in training young officers at the Portsmouth Naval Academy. But the focus during this time is on practical education. In terms of shaping officers’ behavior, the Admiralty is helped by the fact that there were always more would-be sea officers than active positionsespecially in peacetime. So they let it be known that your continued employment, if you wanted one of these limited positions, would mean you would actually have to follow the system.

They then followed through with the carrot and stick approach. If you followed their orders, and fought the way they wanted to fight, and created the culture onboard your ship that they wanted, you could expect promotion, a chance at prize money, and a good cruise at sea. And because these officers are in direct competition with on another, this incentivizes their behavior. If you don’t follow these rules, you’re not going to get anywhere. There’s nothing worseas we learn from the Patrick O’Brian novels–than being a forty-something lieutenant without prospects. That’s just not a good place to be.

One of the reforms the Royal Navy institutes is a new rank: Admiral of the Yellow. Previously the idea was once you became a post captain, you rose up the ranks and then eventually retired as an admiral. The problem was that the Royal Navy couldn’t pick out the best sea officer for the job because of this system of hierarchy. There was always someone senior for a command, who if he wasn’t chosen, it caused offense and sometimes political scandals. But when they created this new rankAdmiral of the Yellowthe Royal Navy could now appoint as many people as they wanted to this new rank without having to give them a command. This allows the Admiralty to reach as far down the ranks as they want to promote the officers they think are the best. None of these reforms were universally accepted, by the way—officers were invested in the existing system and not all of them wanted to see it changed. People complained about the fact that there might now be “boy captains,” as they termed it; some people refused to wear the uniform; the Navy Board ignored Admiralty attempts to standardize shipbuilding. Name the reform and there was resistance. But the Royal Navy acted pretty quickly to put teeth behind these reforms and to, shall we say, “dissuade” protests from within the service.

Ceramic dish showing capture of Porto Bello (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1746, Admiral Vernon, one of the most popular officers at the timea man whose face was on household items, on posters, prints hanging in houses, salt shakers, you name it, he was a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Britaingot into a power struggle with the Admiralty Board. He said he wasn’t given high enough commands for his honor. He thought he wasn’t given enough autonomy and that the Admiralty was trying to constrain him. He was flaunting his public power. Yet the Admiralty cashiered him. They were willing to fire the most popular face of the service. This emphasized to the younger officers that continued employment in the navy meant that you had to abide by the Admiralty Board’s direction.  

Nelson: What is the importance of the Naval Act of 1749? You mentioned Admiral Byng earlier, who was he and why is his fate linked to that famous naval act?

Kinkel: The members of the Admiralty Board were pretty clever at incentivizing sea officers to go along with the new culture of naval service they hoped to create. Promotion and continued employment were clear carrots, but they also wanted to have a stick they could use. There had been a number of very politically contentious courts martial earlier in the 1740s, and one in particular after the 1744 Battle of Toulon in which an officer who chose not to fight was exonerated—because he had the right political connections—while an officer who did fight was cashiered. To prevent something like that from happening again, the new Admiralty Board put forward what became known as the 1749 Navy Bill. The bill was hugely controversial and was only passed after some intense parliamentary debate and public protest.

It did a number of things, but the overall point was to rationalize existing naval martial law and to remove leeway from courts martial in how they applied that law. The effects of the Navy Bill were made clear a few years later, when Britain went back to war with France in 1756. British ministers received information that the French intended to capture the island of Minorca, which was an important British base in the Mediterranean. They sent Admiral John Byng to prevent that. Byng showed up, the French were already there but hadn’t captured the fort yet, and even though he outnumbered them, Byng decided that the day was already lost and he sailed back to Gibraltar instead, leaving the French to take the island. When news got back to Britain, people went absolutely ballistic. Some people blamed Byng as a coward, some people blamed the administration for not having sent him earlier, there were riots, pamphlets, people saying the prime minister should be executed—it was wild. Byng was court martialed, and there was really no way for the court to find him innocent of the charge that he “had not done his utmost to obey His Majesty’s orders.”

The Execution of Admiral Byng/Wikimedia Commons

In earlier years, that could have meant a number of things in terms of actual punishment, but the 1749 Navy Bill said there was only one possible outcome for that offense: death. Byng was rich, and well-connected, and he was executed regardless. That really sent an incredibly stark signal to all the other sea officers that the dangers of disobedience were real. I think it’s not a coincidence that in the years right after Byng’s execution, in the rest of the Seven Years’ War, we start to see sea officers behaving and fighting in far more aggressive ways. They chased enemies into dangerous shoals and rocky bays rather than back down, for example, and increasingly risked their fleets against superior forces. For me, the 1749 Navy Bill and Byng’s execution, which proved that the Admiralty really meant it, set the tone for what would be expected of sea officers for the rest of the century. They’re the foundations of the new naval culture that would eventually lead to victories like Trafalgar.

Nelson:  You describe in your book how the Royal Navy created a legacy of officers that were good at their job. This is largely done by patronage. What was patronage in the eighteenth century Royal Navy? And while naval officers use a different term today—“mentoring” maybe, or “grooming”—what are the similarities and differences between patronage in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first century?

Kinkel: I don’t think that people would have thought about patronage as nepotism or favoritism–not back then. The way it worked over the eighteenth century is we don’t see politicians influencing naval promotion. Letters of recommendations for would-be sea officers are coming from other sea officers. After mid-century, they really are increasingly emphasizing the idea of merit. And it would reflect badly on a superior officer if you pull up someone who goes out and wrecks their first ship. There is an incentive in terms of your own reputation and legacy to identify talent.

From my perspective I see this as not dissimilar to how I think patronage continues to work in our contemporary world. Generally speaking, people in positions of authority want to be supported by people of talent. Big organizations are about teamwork. You need to have someone you can delegate to and you can trust and will make you look good. If your subordinates are bad at their job it will make you look bad. I think this is true in business and politics and other spheres today, just as it was back then. I don’t think patronage is inherently divorced from the concept of merit. I do have an axe to grind when people talk about patronage as somehow antithetical to merit. Now, it can be in some circumstances–but again, I would just call that nepotism. Patronage is a vote of confidence. And absolutely, yes, it can be a vote of confidence on the basis of merit. I say this in the book: today we still rely on personal connections to advance in life, we just call it “networking.” Fundamentally, eighteenth-century patronage is not much different from modern concepts. Some people do fall through the cracks and some talent is not identified, but broadly, people accepted this system.

Nelson: In your book, you’ve included 90 pages of notes. What sources did you rely on? What sources did you keep coming back to?

Kinkel: Some of the books that influenced me first were books on political history and turmoil in eighteenth-century Britain. I saw a disconnect between how naval historians described this period and how political historians described this period. I thought there was a disconnect. Some of the books that I was reading that did influence how I was thinking about maritime history were books by N.A.M. Rodger, Daniel Baugh, and Jeremy Black. One of the examples I thought my book could look like was Kathleen Wilson’s Sense of the People. It’s a book about the arguments over empire. She touches on the resonance that maritime issues clearly had for a large sector of the British population. She talked about Admiral Vernon, she talked about Admiral Byng. So her books showed me one possible version of what fused politically aware history of the navy could look like.

Nelson: Professor, to close, what are some of your favorite books on maritime history?

Kinkel: I think we have a tendency to think about oceans as negative space. But back then, so much of what is important to eighteenth-century Britain takes place on the ocean. From that perspective, I want to read about history that can connect the ocean with the land. For me, my favorite books about maritime history have always been books that show the big picture what’s at stake with everything that happens on the ocean.

One book that came out a few years ago that is really interesting is The Saltwater Frontier by Andrew Lipman. It is about how the areas of coastal waters between what’s now Cape Cod and the Hudson River became a space of contestation and negotiation between a number of European and Native American powers in the early days of colonization.  

Another book that came out in the last couple of years that I really admired is Sam Willis’ book The Struggle for Sea Power. It is, to some extent, a history of the naval campaigns of the American Revolution. But it is a book that takes place almost as much on land or in coastal waters or rivers or lakes as it does on the open ocean. He makes a really compelling point that navies were symbols. There is a moment when the leading citizens of Providence burn a naval ship to the waterline and shoot its commander. Willis points out, rightly, that the burning of the HMS Gaspee is a political statement. During the American Revolution the British are obsessed with building full-sized frigates on Lake Champlain. They definitely don’t need to do this to control these waters. They actually deconstruct a sloop and pull it through the woods plank by plank and rebuild it on the lake. The book deals really well with technical issues–like why navigating sea ice is so hard–but it also deals a lot with the wide varieties of ways navies mattered: economically, politically, and symbolically.

Something that recently I taught in a class on the American Revolution, is a chapter on Boston from Benjamin Carp’s book Rebels Rising. It’s a book that about cities, not ships, but this chapter is one of the best descriptions I’ve seen about how fundamentally maritime power, money, and life Boston was. It is also just a really well-written book. A lot of my students picked this book as their favorite read during the semester.

Finally, I love the movie Master & Commander. One of the things we struggle with as historians is trying to recapture the experience of what it would have been like during the time. I just think that movie is so good. It’s what I imagine the experience of being on an eighteenth-century warship would have been like–it’s so visceral and brutal and tedious. Sometimes when you watch a film and the topic is close to your day job, you’re so fixated on inaccuracies that they can ruin the film. But I never feel this way when I watch this movie.

If I ever taught a class that was just about maritime history, I would make the class watch the movie. There are different ways of telling stories about the past–historians tell them one way, novelists another, and filmmakers another. I’m not convinced one is better than the other in recreating the reality of people’s experiences. Good historical fiction has a real role to play in telling these stories.

Nelson: Professor, this was great. Thank you.

Sarah Kinkel received her PhD from Yale University in 2012. From 2012-2015, she was the managing editor of Eighteenth-Century Studies. She has since taught as an Assistant Professor at Ohio University.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: The capture of Porto Bello. George Chambers Sr. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Nazi’s U-Boat Ace

By Christopher Nelson

Author Larry Paterson joins us to discuss his new book, Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander

Nelson: Let’s start with you. You live in Italy, you’re a SCUBA instructor, a drummer for a heavy metal band, and you write books about naval history. I’ll admit, it is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve read on a book flap. So how did you end up writing books on naval history?

Paterson: It does seem to surprise people sometimes! Growing up in New Zealand, a lot of people we knew had served in Second World War and even the previous war. One of my grandfathers had gone ashore on the first day of Gallipoli in 1915 and then gone through the Somme, Passchendaele, and so on, while the other was ex-Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, and fought in the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. So, the subject of military history was always around, and both of them taught me that it was never as simple as black and white, good and bad, when it came to warfare. Most people hated Germans, while both my grandfathers respected them. I suppose that my interest in the German side of Second World War stems from that.

I left New Zealand in 1988 to be a drummer in the UK (and to see Iron Maiden live because they kept canceling New Zealand tours), so found myself near most of the battlefields I had read about. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager, and I became an instructor, eventually running my own little operation in Brittany, France, which is littered with Kriegsmarine wrecks. The U-boat bunkers and Atlantic Wall are all still there and a friend of mine called Jon Gawne sent me a copy of the First U-Boat Flotilla’s War Diary, who were based in my area. The rest just seemed to come together after that really.   

Nelson: Your newest book is about one of the Nazi’s most successful U-Boat commanders. U-boats, I believe, are a subject in some of your other work. What is it about the German Navy of World War II, particularly U-boats, that fascinates you?

Paterson: I have studied – and continue to study –  all aspects of the Third Reich’s military machine, and specializing in the Kriegsmarine kind of came around by accident after receiving the War Diary and diving on a lot of Kriegsmarine wrecks. Of course, you can’t study one side of a military and political conflict in isolation, so Second World War warfare, in general, is fascinating. I’m glad I was able to know so many people that were actually there, because most are gone now.

Why am I fascinated with U-boats? I don’t honestly know. It’s an intensely interesting subject, as is the whole of the Wehrmacht. What motivated people to fight against such odds? I do not for one minute subscribe to the ‘all Germans were Nazis’ idea that people keep saying, as that provides purely political motivation as a driving factor. There were undoubtedly some like that, as there are now in overly nationalistic people, but in general, the Wehrmacht was made up of ordinary working people. Even the Waffen SS can’t be explained by running home to the ‘Nazi’ label. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, the military services of the Third Reich.

One of my all-time favorite historians Max Hastings writes very lucidly about it and claims, with (I believe) great validity, that the German forces were probably, as a whole and in general terms, the most militarily adept of the war. It’s hard to deny the fact though they were frequently led by chaotic orders, and with such finite resources and a regime despicable in its treatment of subjugated people (even their own) they were always bound to fail. This in no way denigrates other nations’ military. For example, I now live in Italy, a nation whose efforts in the Second World War are roundly mocked, and yet who had superb Special Forces, paratroopers, and torpedo bomber pilots. So…going back to your original question before I got sidetracked into the complexities of it all…why am I fascinated? I have no idea!      

Nelson: Who was Otto Kretschmer? Where does he sit in the ranking of other U-boat commanders when you refer to “scoring” in the subtitle of your book?

Paterson: Kretschmer was the most successful U-boat captain of the Second World War, and the term ‘scoring’ relates to the total tonnage of shipping that he sank while commander of both U23 and U99. It’s terminology that is frequently used in military books dealing with all branches of service, be it tank commanders, fighter pilots or U-boat skippers, but in reality, it is a rather glib way of putting it. Counting tonnage sunk was at the heart of Dönitz’s entire U-boat campaign which, in effect, was designed to sink more merchant shipping carrying capacity tonnage than could be replaced, thereby reducing the cargo carrying potential to Great Britain and correspondingly succeed in enforcing a blockade that could starve Britain into submission.

U-52, A Type VIIB German Submarine (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it has probably become a term that is used too freely in books that deal with the U-boat war. Every ship that was sunk was the home of those crewmen, and even those that went down with no casualties frequently involved a lot of fear, panic, the loss of belongings and even the stoppage of wages for many merchant seamen! Then there are the other ships that sank in flames with men killed and injured and frequently left to die. The other side of the coin is identical: U-boats being sunk with men trapped inside the hull and crushed by extreme pressure or dying through air starvation or the myriad other ways that killed three-quarters of the men of the U-boat service. As always, that is the reality of such a war, which can be somewhat ‘anesthetized’ by talking about a U-boat commander’s ‘score.’ Nevertheless, it is a quantifiable measure of military success, and Kretschmer ranks at the very top of that ‘league table.’ 

Having dived on many wrecks which are war graves, that moment gives you a sense of humility and gravity that I think is very important to remember. The same as standing at the cemetery near Omaha Beach. Truly sobering, and an important feeling for anybody who studies and writes about war to be aware of.

Nelson: What was the standard path for a German submariner to become a captain of their own boat? Did it differ greatly from the allies?

Paterson: Not particularly, though it accelerated greatly as the war dragged on and the ‘old guard’ were either posted ashore or lost in action. In the early stages, men enlisted as officer cadets, served as midshipmen, then junior officers before — if judged competent — given their own command. Often a training boat at first, though that morphed into a combat boat involved in training and trials before heading to the front. Kretschmer was amongst the ‘first wave’ of young captains, the men that served as his First Watch Officer amongst the ‘second wave’ and beyond that the entire process got quicker and quicker. Men were sometimes going to sea with little command experience, and with crews that had been drafted into the U-boats. The mythology of a force of volunteers is just that, a myth.     

Nelson: Did the Germans have better submarines than the allies? How quickly were the German’s able to innovate and field new submarines, and what types of submarines did Kretschmer serve on?

Paterson: Perhaps the Germans possessed better submarines in the early stages of the war. Certainly, the Type VIIB (like Kretschmer’s U99) was a finely-honed weapon, and the larger Type IX cruiser submarines well-suited to more distant operations. However, there hadn’t really been that much development between the wars and the types were reminiscent of those that served in the First World War. The Type II that Kretschmer started on a was a good coastal boat, but of limited endurance and weapon load. The Type VII was the backbone, particularly the later Type VIIC. These had excellent seakeeping qualities and a well-designed hull that gave it quite an extreme depth capability for a boat of its time. Creature comforts were few, but then that can be the story of the Wehrmacht. Conditions aboard a combat boat were difficult, particularly on a long voyage where living and working space was sacrificed for supplies, and yet people just dealt with it.

U-37, A type IXA U-Boat in Lorient (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as development after the war had begun, that proved a major stumbling block. Rather than create a completely new design, modifications to the existing frames were made so that by 1943 the boats were virtually obsolete. The Germans failed in the cypher war most spectacularly when they refused to concede the possibility of compromised codes and were frequently one step behind Allied countermeasures such as radar, the Leigh Light, and air superiority.

The finite resources that Germany waged war with sealed the fate of the entire Wehrmacht; the Luftwaffe declining quickly and unable to counterbalance Allied material and tactical strength. Things like the snorkel helped briefly but were never going to swing the tide of war, much as the German attack that became the Battle of the Bulge was never going to alter the outcome of the war but gave the Allies a momentary fright. The development of the Walther propulsion system never came to fruition and the Type XXI electro-boats would have had to come into service in early 1944 to make any appreciable difference, and even then it would be doubtful. They too were deeply flawed in their construction, due to the dislocation caused by Allied bombing. The Type XXIII electro-boat saw service and was an effective machine, but carried only two torpedoes! The same loadout as a Seehund midget submarine — and not really of much greater endurance. 

So, before the war had gone past 1941, the Germans were reacting to Allied technological and tactical advances rather than leading the field. Dönitz never had enough boats in action during the early years when they could have made a difference. He wanted 300 before war was declared — he started with 57. By the time he had the numbers, the U-boat war was already lost and the ‘greats’ who had captained the ‘Ace’ boats were gone.    

Nelson: I was fascinated to learn in your book that the Germans had their own problems with torpedoes. I’ve read about our own challenges with U.S. torpedoes in the early part of the war, but I wasn’t aware of the Kriegsmarine’s troubles. What exactly was the problem with German torpedo performance? Kretschmer experienced some of this, did he not?

Paterson: German torpedo performance was abysmal. It wasn’t just the Kriegsmarine that suffered this problem, it was the same with aerial torpedoes for the short-lived naval air arm and the Luftwaffe. A lack of rigorous testing and technological development rendered them next to useless. It was really a combination of things that damned the German torpedoes.

First, while the contact detonator that had been used during the First World War was simple and reliable, it had been redesigned between the wars to an overly complex series of levers that were supposed to provide a wider angle in which the trigger would fire, but in effect did not work. It was tested only twice before being issued, and even those tests did not go well.

So, U-boat skippers were advised to use magnetic pistols. However, not only did Allied degaussing provide a problem for them but geographical variations in the earth’s magnetic fields rendered them inoperable — as in Norwegian waters during 1940.

However, even if they had worked, the triggering of a magnetic detonator required the torpedo to pass beneath a ship’s keel at a set depth and German torpedo depth keeping was compromised by a leaking balance chamber. Original tests of the torpedo’s depth keeping had been done at ordinary atmospheric pressure, but the internal pressure of a U-boat differed, and this differential leaked into the chamber and caused torpedoes to run deeper than set and thereby not triggering. This problem wasn’t remedied until the end of 1942! Instead, commanders began to rely on pattern running and, later, acoustic-homing torpedoes that could be countered.      

Nelson: Another thing I read with fascination – again, because it is something that can plague any Joint Force today – and that’s Germany’s challenge of coordination between the navy and the air force. You write that on one deployment, the Luftwaffe attacks Kretschmer’s boat. What happened? And was this a problem throughout the entire war?

Paterson: Yes, indeed…For an effective military, they were extremely ineffective sometimes! The relationship between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine was frequently strained; a situation that stemmed from the very top as Göring was vainglorious and boastful and despised the ‘cold’ and aristocratic Raeder. It is true that Raeder did not really value the U-boat service as much as his ‘big ships’ but he also failed to understand the potential of aircraft as an offensive maritime weapon, soon demonstrated by most other countries’ navies. Göring, on the other hand, wanted tight control of everything that flew in Germany and frequently engaged in the kind of petty political maneuvering that was rife within the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht and Third Reich as a whole, often at the expense of operational necessity.

Kretschmer’s U-boat was actually attacked by a floatplane from the Scharnhorst after it strayed unintentionally into a prescribed search and attack radius given by the battleship’s reconnaissance aircraft who were guarding against British submarines. But there were more deadly examples of the lack of cooperation between the two services such as when two destroyers were sunk as a result of a German bomber attack. That example was a combination of faulty Luftwaffe navigation — most of their crews not properly trained in nautical navigation — and lack of communication between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands as neither was made fully aware of the other’s movements in time to brief operational crews.   

It’s an interesting topic in itself and I’m actually working on a book about Luftwaffe maritime forces, a long and complicated story! The reality is that although aircraft like the Focke Wulf 200 Condor are (in)famous for their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, they were woefully unprepared, unsuitable, undertrained and underequipped. Thankfully, for the Allies! Proper air and sea coordination between better led, better equipped, and better-supplied forces could have been devastating.   

Nelson: How good was Kretschmer as a tactician? Did he prefer the surfaced night attack? If so, why?

Paterson: He was very good. He was unwilling to follow the norm and obey whatever operational protocol was being promoted. Like many of his generation of U-boat commanders, he thought outside the box and always had two overriding motivating factors: combat effectiveness (i.e. results) and crew welfare. He would not jeopardize his boat or crew without a good chance of survival and success.

His preference was to penetrate the convoy body itself, at night and on the surface. Once submerged, the U-boat was slow, detectable, and unwieldy. On the surface it was fast, well-armed, maneuverable and hard to see as he would sail with the hull trimmed as low as feasible providing very little silhouette. It took great concentration, quick thinking, efficient lookouts, and a good torpedo officer as the First Watch Officer actually aimed and fired while surfaced as the captain maintained the ‘overall look.’

He was not the only commander to adhere to the ‘one torpedo, one ship’ mantra, as Erich Topp and Günther Prien did, to name but two. But their methods were far more successful than the prevailing operational advice of firing a spread of torpedoes from outside the convoy escort screen and hoping for one or two hits.   

Nelson: He’s eventually captured and taken into captivity in Canada. Yet he almost escaped. Can you briefly tell us about that episode?

Paterson: He was captured and did end up in Canada. The escape attempt was relatively far-fetched as it required traversing a great distance to be picked up by a U-boat off the Canadian coast. Not impossible, though as it transpired, not workable either. The tunnel was discovered, although one man did make it over the wire in a separate attempt and managed to reach the area of the rendezvous. Of course, the Allies had discovered the entire plan, and were waiting to trap the U-boat, U536, that had been sent to rescue them. The U-boat skipper sensed the trap and retreated, and the single escaped prisoner was caught. In fact, U536 was soon sunk thereafter as well.  

Nelson: Kretschmer was never a fervid Nazi, was he? What did he do after the war?

Paterson: He wasn’t a particularly politically motivated man, though he was undoubtedly nationalistic. His roots were in Silesia so he would have felt the fractious relationship with Poland resulting from the previous war and was probably in favor of the Third Reich’s stated ambition of reuniting and reinvigorating Germany. But, I don’t want to guess at his thoughts on the matter, as it is indeed a complex area which is also, of course, very sensitive for people. After the war he returned to Germany, studied maritime law, and then joined the navy once more. That in itself would have been a difficult time for such veterans as the Germans attempted to distance themselves from militarism, and yet some of their senior officers were ex-Wehrmacht and extremely militaristic. Tricky.    

Nelson: Das Boot (the film) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Brilliant. I actually prefer it to the book. One of my stock questions for U-boat veterans was what they thought of the film. In general, they were all very positive, give or take a few scenes. Many did not like the bar scene and said they would have little respect for officers who passed out and vomited on themselves. Others said there was too much noise from the crew during depth charging, but in general, the consensus was that it is as close to reality as any film has been. Personally, I think it is a superb film in every way. I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the film sets that are at the Bavarian Film Studios and open to the public, and it is remarkably like being inside U995 at Kiel. On the other hand, the movie U571 is junk of the worst kind, in every possible way, apart from a great U-boat model!

U995 in Kiel (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: Das Boot (the book) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Great book but prefer the film. More U-boat men that I spoke to don’t like the book so much. Sometimes that is because they could not stand the author Buchheim, an ex-propaganda reporter during Second World War. A man that certainly divided opinion amongst the veterans I have spoken to!

Nelson: Who, in your opinion, are some of the other naval historians writing about the German Navy during World War II whose work you admire?

Paterson: There are a lot, I’m not really sure who to name. As I’ve said before, I really like the work done by Max Hastings, though his books are not specifically naval at all. But his studies of aspects of the entire war are truly excellent. He has a refreshing ability to apply clarity and reasoned argument to subjects that are often considered done and unalterable. His views are forthright, accurate, and well presented and I find his books inspirational as he is not afraid to approach subjects as they actually are, rather than repeating the ‘party line.’ It’s hard to make a voluminous study of the war so readable, but he does it. In a similar way that Cornelius Ryan used to with such great books as A Bridge Too Far and so on. Also, Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle For Europe takes some beating. My favorite authors about U-boats? Very hard to say…maybe Jak Mallmann Showell’s older books, Jordan Vause, Eberhard Rössler… I would find it easier to say which books I don’t like…but I’m not going to! 

Nelson: This is great. Thank you.

New Zealander Lawrence Paterson has written fifteen books related to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War – predominantly concerning German naval operations – and one about his time on the road as part of the Blaze Bayley band. He is working on two more books which mark something of a new direction; the first being a history of Luftwaffe maritime operations, and the other detailing Operation Colossus, the first British parachute drop of the war. He is also a scuba diving instructor after having first learnt to dive in New Zealand in 1984, and a touring heavy metal drummer, a career that he started at about the same time! He now lives in Puglia, Italy, with his wife, three cats, two drum kits and a library of books.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: German U-boat attack, World War II. Artwork of German sailors on the conning tower of a U-boat (submarine) that has surfaced after sinking a British cargo ship during World War II (1939-1945). This 1941 painting is by German artist Adolf Bock (1890-1968).