Tag Archives: Royal Navy

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)

North of Norfolk

Fiction Topic Week

By Hal Wilson

“Is Jim in?” he asked, red-faced and dripping rain.

The front door underlined his question, slamming shut as abruptly as he had arrived.

“Hello Carl!” the kindly, old receptionist beamed. The question was redundant, but politeness demanded it; they both knew Carl was on-site. He was one of their few staff not already called up for the front. “What’s the matter?”

“Call him up, will you? There’s something urgent.”

She frowned – picked up her phone and dialled Jim’s line. He could hear the internal line bleep patiently, once, twice, three times… It ceased as the connection was made.

“Got a visitor,” she explained, “it’s Carl, something urgent for you… OK.”

She set the phone down.

“He’ll be up in a moment,”

Carl paced by the door, as if that could make time pass more swiftly.

He was an ageing man; hiding a modest paunch and greying hair. But he had an ex-rugby prop’s broad frame, and energy enough that people mistook him for greater youth. The receptionist, watching him, knew what was on his mind: the new arrival to town. Everyone was talking about it.

“Carl!” boomed a voice from the back of the room.

It was Jim, smiling as he heaved open a back door. Machine-sound and solvent smells followed; the essence of grinding metal and chemical cleaners; the natural home for maritime engineers like Jim. Brushing strips of swarf from his coverall, Jim shook Carl’s meaty paw.

“How’s it been in the sales team? Keeping busy?”

“How do you like the idea of some war work?” Carl replied.

“We already have contracts with…” Jim paused. “Wait. You mean they need…”

“They do,” Carl interrupted, taking Jim by the arm, “come on.”

Outside, the rain assaulted in thick drifts from the leaden sky. They hurried past the storage yard, where coffee-coloured steel tubes were stacked like so much timber. Soaked to the skin, they bundled into Carl’s car.    

“Any details about the job?” Jim asked, checking for his old-style pen and paper. The car sputtered alive, and they set off down the rain-slick road, heedless of the speed limit.

“Nothing yet,” was the answer, “I’m no good with technicalities anyway.”

“True enough,” Jim agreed.

They crossed the Great Ouse River on the back of a Victorian bridge, crenellated with iron gargoyles weeping in the deluge. The broad, brown waters of the river blurred by, giving way to the town along its banks. Here huddled lengths of terraced homes, lights burning in their windows as they waited out the storm. Much like the rest of these isles.

“How’s it been, anyway?” Jim asked, fumbling for small-talk with some engineers, his social skills left something to be desired.

“What? I only saw you last week.”  

“Well, just asking…”

“I’m fine,” Carl sighed, relenting, “just worried about the boys.”

“Still no word?” Jim ventured cautiously. The news from the east was grim. Estonia: gone, and with it some thousand British soldiers. Germany: ‘de-escalating’ – a betrayal, garbed in Teutonic politeness. All the while, Kaliningrad still held out.

Carl said nothing.

They drove on, through the heart of the old hanseatic town.

Here, they passed the Elizabethan gates of ochre ashlar, which once resisted Cromwell. There, they passed the town hall, built in the days of Drake. It had the aspect of a cathedral and a skin of chequered flint, declaring SEMPER EADEM above its door. Cobblestones rumbled beneath their wheels, and the narrow streets narrowed yet more until, at last, the river reappeared before them.

Carl pulled up in the lee of the old Customs House, sandstone-chiselled with all Wren’s hallmarks. Alabaster-capped by its Roman cupola, it watched them anxiously.

“Let’s go,” Carl directed, braving the rain once more.

The downpour took them eagerly, hungrily, like a lusting lover; they could only shiver as sharp winds embraced them also, sweeping in off the Wash. Together they hustled to a nearby quay, frantic as they rushed down its length. At the far end, they scrambled aboard a waiting boat.

“Glad you boys could make it.”

It was Steve, the town ferryman, cocooned in waterproofs and greeting them at the rail.

Steve shook them by the hand (for they were each old friends), and they felt the warmth in his ever-calloused palms; saw the glint of eagerness in his hooded eyes. His craft was an open-sided, flat-bottomed thing, ideal for these tidal flats. Without another word, Steve got them underway. His two passengers could only shudder and stamp their feet – the wind was even fiercer down on the water.

And they had a fight on their hands. The ferry would normally glide to its landing stages on the easy tides of a river that – as befitting its name – often simply oozed. But now it braved the face of the afternoon tide. The waters were racing in with express-train ferocity, while miniature whitecaps frothed and broke amid the tawny waters. At the wheel, Steve simply stood like a statue, sharp eyes peering for detail. Stamping their feet, Carl and Jim could only curse the north wind, grabbing stanchions as the ferry bellied against every wave.

Suddenly, from starboard, motion drew their eyes. A pair of black-winged Cormorants cruised carelessly by, skimming scant centimetres above the rushing waters. The two passengers followed them with their gaze, taking in the town as the birds flew upstream: rain-slick roofs gleamed like gemstones as the sun struggled through low clouds above. Under each patch of shining slate peered the ivory-white outlines of windowpanes, each one tracking them with bated breath. Farther upstream, the port’s grain silo was half-swallowed by the concrete cloud, leaving a corrugated stump to the eye.

The town was a good place for the soul, by all accounts. But it was also scared.

Anyone looking upriver could understand why. Garbed in rusting blue, moored alongside the port, was the SCOTS KESTREL. It was just one of the grain bulkers marooned at the town over the last weeks. Beyond the port’s entrance lock were another two docks. Hidden behind the agribulk sheds, both were filled to capacity with millions upon millions in lost revenue.

There were steel-carriers, timber-ships and coal-haulers. All languished immobile. Each was waiting. Waiting – either for the order to convoy or for their insurers to resume trading. Whichever came first; as their old Baltic routes were best avoided for now.

Just as concerning was the newest arrival. It was anchored mid-river for lack of harbour berths.

Its flanks were gunmetal grey, with a bladelike bow and squat bridge amidships. Immediately aft was the ship’s mast, complete with swirling radar and hedgehog-spine aerials. Farther aft were crane assemblies dangling fast boats – and, behind them, a vacant helicopter pad. It flew the White Ensign, to be sure, but the ship gave no confidence. Not for Carl, at any rate.

It was shot through with rust. It was small. And it was alone. Carl could spot only one weapon aboard. It was some trifling pop-gun cannon, mounted on an open platform.

Insane, he decided. Who would sail in that thing?

“Almost there now,” Steve announced, rousing Carl from his frigid musings. Ahead, he noticed, the port-side crane was stirring at their approach, lowering one of the ship’s boats into the river. A member of the ship’s company stood astride, waving for them to approach. Steve angled his ferry until it was close alongside, gesturing with a flick for Jim and Carl to go.


Lieutenant Commander Hart breathed deep, closing his eyes for a brief moment.

The Russian had made it far too close.

He could still see the torpedo track in his mind, still hear the collective gasp of his bridge crew as it detonated late – on the far side of their helpless ship. Perhaps some Russian technician got sloppy. Perhaps some electronics failed at that one critical moment. Either way, terror had laid a dread hand on Hart’s shoulder, only to pull away. He exhaled, trying to harness this emotion. He would have to inspire some terror of his own in the P8 sub-hunters who dropped the ball. The useless pricks.

And then there was Keegan, the poor bastard. But that was something else entirely.

The bridge deckhead felt somehow oppressively low; the air itself seemed lifeless, as if robbed of its oxygen. He had the LED lighting off for now – its glare brought on headaches after enough hours – leaving the space with the half-dead ambience of the cloudy sky outside. But with the ship lying at anchor, its engines were still. Their comms, for now, had ceased their babble. It was quiet, at last. Praise God, it was quiet.

In the momentary peace, tea mug in hand, Hart idly pursued some mental mathematics.

Five day patrol – five times twenty-four: one hundred and twenty.

Deduct sleep – five times two, or three? Call it two-point-five… twelve-point-five.

And the shakeup at Pompey? Let’s say two times twenty four, minus six… forty-two.

One hundred twenty plus forty-two… minus, what was it? Twelve point five? Bloody hell… 

Hart rubbed at his eyes, despairing. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t finish his mental gymnastics. Even so, it confirmed what he already knew: this endurance was a young man’s game.

But then, if not him to command this ship, then who?

All his friends in the fleet, men and women he had known since the early days at Dartmouth, were already committed. Each and every one.  Every colleague he knew, through almost two decades in the Service, was either deployed or holding down countless shore jobs in the absence of the rest. There were too few hulls, and not enough crews for those they had anyhow. The last Hart saw, one of the old Type 23s was still by Portsmouth’s No. 1 Basin, just waiting for hands to sail her.

“Sir,” came a voice, stirring him back to life. It was Lieutenant Asher, his second-in-command.

“Number One.” He hoped she had missed his moment of weakness.

“The civilians are on the water,” she reported, “we should have them on board shortly.”

“Good. Ensure they only see the engineering spaces. And avoid talking about Keegan, if you can.”

“Of course, sir.” Asher understood the subtext. Don’t let them realise how strung out we are.

“And when you’re done with them, report back to me. We need to discuss magazine access.”

Asher saluted and exited onto the bridge wing. Heading aft, she drew her weatherproof smock close against the rain. Hart was tired – she had seen through his façade at once.

It was no surprise. The older generations avoided the EverReady stim-pills that kept her going longer. She spat in despair. She needed Hart at 100 percent: her own seagoing experience was nowhere close to his, and she knew it. It was down to him that they survived the last patrol – barely – but his reserves were spent.

Just like Keegan.

“Keep taking the bloody pills,” she muttered.


As soon as Carl and Jim were aboard the ship’s fast boat, the sailor waved for the crane operator to hoist them back up. Unsteady, the two bent their knees and hoped to save themselves embarrassment. The sailor regarded them as if they were drunk.

“You the engineer?” he asked, raising his voice above the wind. Carl noticed the sailor was young: incredibly young. There was no hiding the boyish face, despite his easy pose and deep voice.

Almost the age of my boys, he realised. Jim nodded in reply to the sailor.

“Lieutenant Asher will take you in,” the boy replied.

He pointed to a figure waiting at the ship’s rail, wrapped in a foul-weather smock. Carl and Jim looked sidelong at each other as the hoist thunked their boat back into place.

“Gents,” the figure called, “follow me.”

Jim started as he realized the figure was a woman. She regarded them with disdainful black eyes, almost as severe as the bun tying back her auburn hair.

“Are you Lieutenant Asher?” Carl asked, pretending to ignore his friend’s awkwardness.

“Come on,” she sighed, “time is a factor.”

They hurried along the waterlogged upper decks, ducking through an awkward doorway. Mercifully, the wind remained outside. But the ship’s narrow passageways were bathed in the clinical glare of LEDs, as though they were entering a surgeon’s operation. Ahead, Asher was already racing down the ship’s vertiginous ladder. Unsure of themselves, the two men lingered at the top. The treads were narrow, slickened by the raindrops from Asher’s passage. The climb was slow and treacherous; more than once, Carl felt he was about to slip.

Together below, Asher led them deeper into the ship’s guts. The engine room, lined with silvery heat-cladding, was deserted; its single gangway was flanked by two van-sized diesel blocks. Carl looked about himself, confused by light-studded consoles; looming extractor vents; labyrinthine pipes swirling around the engines.

“Here,” Asher pointed, “this is what we need you checking out.”

Looking over Jim’s shoulder, Carl understood little of what he saw.

“What, the shaft generator?” Jim asked, peering closer.

“No, that. That thing – there.”

Carl looked across at Asher, confused. How can she not understand her own machinery?

“Excuse me, Lieutenant, are you not the onboard engineer?”

Asher paused, hesitant. Crouched on his haunches, Jim looked up at her in curiosity.

“No. Keegan, our MEO – Marine Engineering Officer… he fell. Broke his neck where we came down earlier.”

“Good god,” Carl gasped, thinking back to his own unsteady climb, “I’m so sorry to hear.”

Asher nodded thanks.

“We suffered some damage in our last patrol,” she explained, “a shockwave from close in on the port side. It’s caused some damage to our propulsion. But Keegan’s deputy had to stay ashore with some kind of duodenal, and we don’t have our usual complement of senior technical rates. So, without Keegan, we don’t know how to fix it. At this rate, we’ll be doing bare steerageway all the way home.”

“Where’s the Machinery Control Room? Have you checked the switchboards, the DC links?” Jim asked, looking around.

“Yes, our artificers did thorough tests. No wider system faults.”

Producing his pen and paper, Jim scribbled urgent notes.

Carl, no engineer himself, only loosely understood what was being discussed. He watched as Jim rolled his sleeves and made closer, painstaking observations. Minutes passed as he gave running commentary to Asher – as if she could understand, either.

“The shaft pedestal is OK, by the looks of things… Maybe it’s the flanges… No, no, it’s misalignment! Maybe from the shockwave you mentioned.” He span around, locking eyes with Asher.

“Look, I’m eyeballing it here, but I reckon the jacking screws are misaligned. That’s going to overload your bearings. But we may have caught it before they need replacing.”

Asher glanced at Carl, out of her depth.

“What are our next steps?”

“I want a second opinion,” Jim said, “let me go talk to my guys and we’ll get you a proposal in a few hours. I reckon we can replace the jacking screws for a temporary fix. Then it’s over to your guys in Pompey for a deeper look. The shockwave may have caused all sorts. Hull flexing, you name it.”   

“How long?”

“Hard to say. But we’ve got stocks on hand, what with all those docked ships deferring MRO work.”

Carl smiled, proud for his friend. Jim was in his element.

And, better yet, it was another sale to boost Carl’s own quarterly numbers.

“Lieutenant Asher,” he beamed, “sounds to me like you’re in luck.”


Lingering at the bridge windows, Lieutenant Commander Hart watched the local ferry leaving. The two passengers looked pleased with themselves. Hart gave silent thanks for the luck of reaching this place – they might yet make it to Portsmouth after all.

“How long?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder as Asher returned to the bridge.

“They’ll have a proposal for us soon. Beyond that he wouldn’t say. But he was confident.”

“What did you tell them about Keegan? They must have asked about our own engineer team.”

“I said he fell, sir. Broke his neck.”

“Hmmm. Better than the truth.”

“You said you wanted to discuss small arms magazine access?”

“Just so,” Hart said, knocking back the last of his tea. “Keegan should never have gotten access to that pistol. And how did we not see how he was headed for a breakdown?”

“We all are, sir.”

Hart set down his mug, as if it had grown suddenly too heavy. Asher watched him, hesitant.

“A friend of ours just shot himself, Asher. Without him, we were almost disabled. Don’t be flippant.”

“Sir, I’m deadly serious. We’re not going to last another patrol like this. Sooner or later, the P8 fliers will miss another contact. And then we won’t be submarine bait. We’ll be dead.”

Hart shot her a frosty glance. It softened almost at once. She was right, after all. He reached into a pocket, pulled free a signal message – fresh off the printer.

“I can’t argue with that. But I can give you good news. Read this.”

Asher looked across the message in front of her.

“From COMUKMARFOR,” she read, “return to HMNB Portsmouth for emergency refit and installation of Battle AI. Report ETA and LOGREQ!” Asher looked up, grinning for the first time in a long time. Hart was smiling right back at her.

“Number One, chase up our Navigating Officer, then have a word with the logistics rates. Tell them HMS KENNET is headed home.”

Hal Wilson explores future warfare challenges through narrative and fiction, and has been published by the Small Wars Journal. He has written finalist entries for fiction contests held by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, as well as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Hal lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry. 

He graduated in 2013, with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is now studying a masters degree in the History of Britain in the First World War.

Featured Image: Maintenance by khesm (via Deviant Art)

Plaster The Ship With Paint – Dazzle & Deception in War

James Taylor, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. Naval Institute Press, 2016. 128 pages, $38.00/hardcover.

By Christopher Nelson

There is a fun little ditty in the last page of James Taylor’s book, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. It goes like this:

Captain Schmidt at his periscope,
You need not fall and faint,
For it’s not the vision of drug or dope,
But only the dazzle-paint.
And you’re done, you’re done, my pretty Hun.
You’re done in the big blue eye,
By painter-men with a sense of fun,
And their work has just gone by.
Cheero! A convoy safely by.

British composer George Frederic Norton wrote the tune for a close friend and fellow artist. The friend? His name was Norman Wilkinson. And more than anyone, he was responsible for one of the most iconic painting schemes on ships at sea. Known simply as “Dazzle,” or “Dazzle paint,”  it was a mixture of different shapes and colors covering the hull and superstructure of merchants and combatants, primarily in World War I, intended to deceive German submarine captains about a ship’s heading and speed.     

Yet years before World War I, Wilkinson established himself as a talented artist. Born into a large family in the late 19th century, in Cambridge, England, he moved to the southern part of the country as a young boy. It was there, in Southsea, England, that his artistic talents flourished. And like many artists, he benefited from the good graces of a well-connected benefactor. In Wilkinson’s case, it was his doctor. But not just any doctor. His doctor was the creator of  Sherlock Holmes –Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author and physician introduced Wilkinson to the publisher of The Idler, a popular British magazine at the time. Wilkinson would go on to create some illustrations for The Idler and Today magazine. These illustrations were the first of many commissioned paintings, drawings, and posters to come. Landscapes, maritime themes, planes and trains, Norman Wilkinson would end up painting them all.

Author and Physician, Sherlock Holmes supported Norman Wilkinson’s early entry into English periodicals

In fact, military naval enthusiasts – and more than a few naval intelligence officers – might be surprised to learn that Wilkinson was later responsible for the World War II poster that depicted a sinking ship with the disclaimer: “A few careless words may end in this.” The poster is obviously a close cousin to the popular American military idiom, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” a piece of operations security art by Seymour R. Goff (who had the interesting nom de guerre “Ess-ar-gee”) that was created for the American War Advertising Council in World War II. Prints of Goff’s work still cover the walls and passageways of U.S. naval shore facilities and ships today.

A Few Careless Words May End in This, by Norman Wilkinson/Wikipedia

When World War I began, Wilkinson, like thousands of British men, wanted to join up and, as the saying goes, “do his bit.” Eventually, he was assigned as a naval pay clerk and deployed to the Mediterranean theater in 1915. But by 1917 he was back in Britain, and Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. It was around this time that Wilkinson had an idea to protect merchant shipping. And as with so many great ideas, often hatched during the quiet, daily moments of life, Dazzle was born, not in a boardroom or on a chalkboard, but in a “cold carriage” following a fishing trip in southern England.  

Here Taylor quotes Wilkinson:

“On my way back to Devonport in the early morning, in an extremely cold carriage, I suddenly got the idea that since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course which she was heading.”

A few months later, with support from the Royal Academy of Arts, a friend in the Ministry of Shipping, and a few others, the “Dazzle Section” was created. Staffed with artists and modelers (many of them women), they were responsible for paint schemes that covered over 4,000 merchant ships and 400 combatants by the end of the war.  

Taylor does a fantastic job at detailing the personalities and the process that got Dazzle from Wilkinson’s mind onto the hulls of so many ships. Taylor discusses the numerous other artists that helped bring Wilkinson’s idea to fruition, the introduction of Dazzle to the U.S. Navy, and its brief return in World War II. He also highlights the dispute between Wilkinson and Sir John Graham Kerr, a professor of zoology at the University of Glasgow who for years claimed that he, not Wilkinson, should deserve credit for the creation of the dazzle concept. Taylor notes that Kerr “relentlessly campaigned to advance his claim that his scheme was in principle one and the same as Wilkinsons.”   

Camouflage pattern for Benson class destroyer in WWII/Wikipedia

Taylor’s Dazzle, besides succeeding in substance, also succeeds in style. About the size of a composition notebook, Dazzle is large enough to show illustrations of the paint scheme on merchant ships and combatants in clear detail, while it also includes photographs of the artists in the Dazzle sections at work. Hunched over large tables holding small models in their hands, artists carefully painted various Dazzle schemes on each model. Once the model ship was painted they placed it in what they called the “theatre.” This was no more than a room with a table and periscope. The model was placed a circular table and rotated, while another person looked through a periscope that was about seven feet away. “In this way, one could judge the maximum distortion one was trying to achieve in order to upset a submarine Commander’s idea on which the ship was moving.”  The colors that covered the model were then meticulously copied onto a color chart that was provided to the contractors who covered the ships in dazzle designs.

Yet the question still remains: Did Dazzle paint work? Did it deceive U-boat commanders? A small painted model in a theatre is one thing, but out at sea is something entirely different. 

Unfortunately, as Taylor says, we really don’t know. Dazzle painting was introduced late in the war. Naval critic Archibald Hurd noted that there was not “enough evidence” to determine its “efficiency.” Nor, as Taylor notes, did any captured German submarine captains say that Dazzle confounded their targeting of enemy vessels. A single sentence in a submarine log or captain’s diary –Verdammt die Tarnfarbe! – would be an indictment, but if it exists, it has yet to be discovered by naval historians.

Dazzle was intended to deceive U-boats about the ship’s speed and course/U.S. Navy File Image

Taylor, the former curator of paintings, drawings, prints and exhibition organizer at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has written a book that does justice to Wilkinson’s work. The talented Dazzle artists would probably be amazed to see how far his paint scheme has come – as Taylor includes an entire chapter about Dazzle painting’s influence on modern art and how the big blocks of paint now cover cars and even Nike footwear.

My only critique is a request really, that the publishers make this book available in an e-book format for people who prefer the work on an electronic reader.

Regardless, Taylor’s detailed account of Dazzle, his careful selection of photographs, illustrations, and paintings, all printed and bound in a beautiful book is essential for anyone interested in the history of naval deception, World War I navies, or the rare but respected breed who enjoys the intersection of war and art. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is 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 Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The opinions here are his own.

Featured Image: Aquitania in Dazzle Paint/Wikipedia Commons

The Royal Navy and Freedom of Navigation Operations

By Pete Barker

In July, two major announcements were made renewing the Royal Navy’s commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation in the coming years. Firstly, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Right Honourable Michael Fallon, told Reuters that Britain was intending to send a warship to the South China Sea in 2018. The Defence Secretary explicitly stated that, “we have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it.” In a direct reference to China, he added, “we won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea.” Shortly afterward, the Foreign Secretary, the Right Honourable Boris Johnson, announced that the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers (the first of which is currently undergoing sea trials in UK waters) would deploy to the Pacific region to conduct freedom of navigation operations “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigations through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.” This statement develops remarks made by Sir Kim Darroch, the UK Ambassador in Washington DC, at the end of last year.

The significance of these declarations by senior government ministers and diplomats should not be underestimated. Indeed, they have provoked a swift reaction from Chinese officials who have warned countries from outside the region from stirring up trouble. In a barely-veiled reference to recent UK military operations, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated pointedly, “Whoever they are, under whatever pretexts and whatever they say, their precedents of interfering in other regions on high-sounding reasons but only leaving behind chaos and humanitarian disaster warrant sharp alert of regional countries and people.” 

Freedom of navigation is not a recently discovered concept for the British. When a Spanish ambassador had the temerity to complain to Queen Elizabeth I about the voyages of Sir Francis Drake in the Pacific Ocean in the sixteenth century, she replied with one of the clearest early statements on the freedom of the seas: “The use of the sea and air is common to all; neither can any title to the ocean belong to any people or private man, for as much as neither nature nor regard of the public use permitteth any possession thereof.”1 Although her successor to the throne, King James I, flirted with the idea of nations having dominion over the oceans (mainly to protect Scottish fishing rights), it was still accepted that prohibiting innocent passage would be contrary to the dictates of humanity.2 By the early seventeenth century, Britain, by then a major maritime power, had recognized the benefits of oceans being open to all and has been a loyal adherent to this policy for the past 350 years. In the twentieth century, this commitment manifested itself during the negotiations which produced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UK diplomats made significant contributions to the development of some key concepts relating to freedom of navigation, such as the right of transit passage through international straits, later adopted by all the signatory nations.3

Although the UK has supported freedom of navigation as a matter of principle for centuries, its economic and practical impact for a leading world economy should not be ignored. The two are inextricably linked. In a recent address to a multi-national workshop on freedom of navigation and the law of the sea at the U.S. Naval War College, noted University of Virginia professor Ambassador John Norton Moore (ret.), a member of the U.S. 1982 UNCLOS negotiating team, stated that the provisions of the treaty “for freedom of navigation are of the utmost importance in protecting global trade, one of the core mechanisms for global economic growth.” The United Nations estimated that in 2011, nearly half of the world’s annual trade by sea passed through the Malacca Straits and the adjacent South China Sea. The economic arguments for maintaining navigational rights in this region are unassailable, especially as the UK develops new trading relationships with Asian partners following its planned withdrawal from the European Union.

Historically, the UK has not conducted a formal program of freedom of navigation operations in the manner that the U.S. has. Of course, ships of the Royal Navy exercise their legal rights through the waters of the world on a daily basis, whether transiting through key straits or conducting innocent passage through territorial waters of coastal states. Their presence provides security for commercial shipping of all nations that are exercising similar rights. The exercise of these rights is no different to the navy of any other country in the world (Chinese ships recently transited through the Dover Straits on their way to conduct exercises in the Baltic, a practice also seen from Russian ships). However, by highlighting these operations years in advance, the UK has given them added strategic significance. This approach does not form part of the U.S. program. Current U.S. policy seems to be that such operations are only confirmed retrospectively in the annual Department of Defense report. On the basis of announcements to date, the UK seems to be taking a more overt and open approach to the conduct of freedom of navigation tasking. As noted by Dr. Euan Graham, the use of an aircraft carrier would also be a significant change from current U.S. tactics.

The actual operations are unlikely to appear dramatic and will probably be similar to those conducted by U.S. ships under Presidents Obama and Trump. One of the key considerations for the UK will be to clearly articulate what is being challenged by any particular operation to avoid inadvertently strengthening illegitimate claims (as discussed by Professor James Kraska in relation to U.S. operations here). In all likelihood, these operations will consist of straightforward passages possibly coupled with routine exercises such as a man overboard drill although such operational decisions are clearly speculative at this stage. But these actions speak louder than words. They demonstrate the resolve of the UK to maintain the rule of law at sea throughout the world, to support partner nations in the region which are committed to this concept (including countries such as Japan and India), and to continue a historic association with one of the oldest norms of international law. The UK has designated 2017 as the “Year of the Navy” and this commitment to conducting freedom of navigation operations halfway around the world shows both the value that is placed on this right and the resurgent capability of the Royal Navy to take action to preserve these freedoms.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College.  He can be contacted at peter.barker.uk@usnwc.edu.

This post is written in a personal capacity and the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Ministry of Defence or the UK government.

References

1. Camden, Annales, 225 (ed. 1635) quoted on page 107 of Thomas Wemyss Fulton, The Sovereignty of the Sea, William Blackwood and Sons, 1911

2. Ruth Lapidoff, Freedom of Navigation – Its Legal History and Its Normative Basis, 6 J.Mar. L. & Com. 1975, p.268

3. Clyde Sanger, “Ordering the Oceans: The making of the law of the sea”, University of Toronto Press, 1987, page 95

Featured Image: Prime Minister Theresa May visits HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Queen Elizabeth made her first entry into her home port of Portsmouth. The Prime Minister went on board and met with members of the crew and addressed the ship’s company
(Jay Allen)