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Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942

By Jason Lancaster

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the army you want.” – U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

Much like Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments on fighting with the army you have, a navy required in crisis cannot be conjured overnight from thin air, good wishes, and steel. An effective navy requires money to build and maintain, time for construction, and foresight to understand the nature of the next naval war. This is a lesson Britain learned the hard way during World War II, and one that all nations with maritime boundaries should head. War weariness and debt from World War I caused defense cuts. Defense cuts reduced the size of the fleet. No longer would Britain maintain a fleet larger than the next two navies in size.

In the wake of World War I, people hoped the League of Nations could peacefully resolve international disputes. The German High Seas Fleet was seized by the Allies and sank at Scapa Flow. War weary British citizens expected defense cuts. In an effort to reduce the strategic risk of naval cuts, nations came together to agree to limitations on fleet size and armaments at the Washington and London Naval Conferences. Faulty strategic assumptions about friends, enemies, and their naval capabilities meant that Britain’s fleet was too small for imperial defense when called upon.

The Japanese attacked Malaya December 8, 1941, and by February 15, 1942 had captured Malaya and Singapore. In just 55 days, Japanese Infantry marched 1,100 Kilometers, established air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), sank a modern battleship and battle cruiser, and captured 85,000 British and Imperial soldiers.1 February 15, 1942 was a black day for the British Empire, the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese after less than a week under siege. Reputed as the Gibraltar of the Far East, Singapore’s defenses rested primarily on propaganda hype. Singapore was not just another catastrophe in a string of early war catastrophes, but a catastrophe caused by failed assumptions in strategic thought, naval procurement, and operational planning.

The Naval Treaties and the Two-Power Standard

The Royal Navy had operated on a two-power standard since the 19th century. The two-power standard meant that Britain would maintain more capital ships than the next two largest navies in the world. Pacifism and anti-war sentiment in the wake of World War I meant the British government was reluctant to spend the money necessary to maintain the two-power standard navy. Moreover, the next two naval powers were Japan and the United States; Japan was an ally until the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, and the Admiralty did not consider the United States a threatening power.

Disarmament was the rule of the day. The London and Washington Naval Treaties limited the sizes of the world’s navies. The Washington Naval Conference set a ten year 5:5:3 ratio for battleships between Britain, the United States, and Japan. Battleship tonnage was limited to 35,000 tons per ship.2 Heavy cruiser tonnage was limited to 10,000 tons; however, there was no limit to the number of heavy cruisers in the Washington Naval Treaty. The London Naval Conference added limits on heavy cruiser numbers. As a pre-condition to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, the United States made Britain choose an ally, the United States or Japan. Great Britain chose the United States, offending Japan and forcing the British to plan for war against Japan. 

With great budgetary finesse and lack of strategic foresight, Great Britain replaced the two-power standard navy with a one-power standard navy. This change caused great debate in the Britain itself as well as in the Colonies. Australian Army Colonel John Lavarack suggested Japan would wait until Britain was occupied elsewhere and that “the dispatch of the British battle fleet to the Far East for the protection of Imperial (and Australian) interests cannot be counted upon with sufficient certainty.”3 Colonel Lavarack’s statements argued for Australian Army budget increases during the inter-war years.

Meanwhile in Britain, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond stated that the odds of Britain having to fight a two-ocean war were, “a hypothetical situation of improbably nature,” and, “I can imagine no worse way of stampeding a government into a waste of money.”4 However, in 1942, he blamed the loss of Singapore on, “the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be defended by a one-hemisphere navy.”5

The Singapore Strategy

Great Britain lacked the finances and political will to retain the number of ships required to defend Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. In order to defend the British Empire’s far eastern colonies, the Admiralty devised the Singapore Strategy. This plan was continually revised until the war broke out. Controversy surrounds what the Singapore Strategy actually called for. In its simplest form, the Singapore Strategy was divided into three phases:

Phase I: Period before relief, the time Singapore and Malaysia would be vulnerable to an attack or siege 

The length of time Singapore was expected to hold out expanded from initially 75 days in the 1920s to 180 days in the late 1930s.

Phase II: Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI)

Singapore’s dockyards and dry dock were built with supporting the fleet when it arrived to defend Singapore. This phase would enable the fleet to repair and resupply before action.

Phase III: Action, Royal Navy’s advance to isolate Japan6

The misperception is that there was only one plan for a purely naval war against Japan. In reality, these phases applied to multiple offensive and defensive plans that evolved as the Royal Navy contracted and slowly expanded.

The offensive plans called for the bulk of the Royal Navy to be forward deployed to the Far East during a crisis. These plans had two key assumptions. Assumption 1: there would be time to deploy the fleet from Europe. Assumption 2: no European crisis would prevent deploying the fleet. Singapore provided all the major basing facilities for the fleet required, including repair facilities, armories, machine shops, fuel depots, and morale infrastructure such as cinemas and mess halls.

The British battleship HMS NELSON off Spithead for Fleet Review, 1937. Anchored in the background are two Queen Elizabeth Class battleships and two cruisers of the London Class.

From Singapore, the fleet could operate from a forward base closer to the combat zone. Many ports were considered as a forward base. Within the empire, Hong Kong and northern Borneo were considered as potential forward bases. In addition to British ports, Britain considered the American port of Manila and French Camrahn Bay as alternate forward bases.

From the forward base, the fleet would force a major fleet action with the Japanese by conducting an island hopping campaign, seizing bases closer and closer to the Japanese home islands. Even an offensive plan placed great emphasis on the British ability to win a drawn out war of attrition with the Japanese. There was an assumption that Britain would win through economic warfare. Without British exports of rubber, tin, manganese, and oil, Japanese industry would lose efficiency and supplies. British diplomacy would also attempt to further isolate Japan by reducing American and Dutch trade.

This offensive plan required European peace. If European war loomed, the fleet would remain in Europe and offensive plans were moot. Debates over offensive and defensive plans and war games were frequent. With rising European tensions, British naval planners looked for ways to defend the Far East without weakening home waters. A guerre de course plan was also developed, and war games led to the development of the 1939 “flying squadron” theory. Admiral Reginald Drax proposed “a flying squadron composed of two fast battleships, two aircraft carriers, four large cruisers, and nine large destroyers” in the Far East to protect British maritime interests. This squadron would “be mobile enough to hunt down Japanese raiding forces of inferior size… and make the Japanese think twice before venturing too far south.” The expectation was to employ this fleet as a maritime commando, striking Japanese sea lines of communication.7

Admiral Drax’s proposal was a variation of the defensive strategy, which included sending four or five capital ships to Singapore to defend British maritime interests, while the bulk of the Royal Navy dealt with the Italian and German threats in Europe. Despite the originality of the Flying Squadron plan, the idea of a British fleet in being was considered too undignified a path for the Royal Navy. Without favor, all traces of the plan were removed from the War Memorandum. Its recommendation for a larger force that included aircraft carriers notwithstanding, many accused the Drax Plan as the seed of destruction for Force Z.

In 1939, Britain found itself in a situation that previously had been thought impossible. Rather than one opponent, Britain now faced three: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Throughout the 1930s, Germany re-armed, whilst Britain remained limited by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

As in World War I, the British expected French support in the Mediterranean. Britain expected that a combined Anglo-French force would rapidly destroy the Italian fleet and enable British reinforcements from Europe to the Far East. France’s rapid collapse eliminated the French fleet and opened French ports to the German fleet. Britain’s assumption of shared responsibility in the Mediterranean had been obliterated.

The Singapore Strategy’s Phase I assumed Singapore would hold out, initially for 75 days, this was raised to 90 days by the early 1930s, and by 1939, it had been increased to 180 days. The gradual increase in time was a reflection of the government in London’s changing priorities from the defense of the empire to the defense of Great Britain.

The offensive Singapore Strategy was similar to the American War Plan Orange, but smaller in scope. The British plan did not set out to achieve as much as the American plan. In 1928, the American plan initially expected 36,000 troops; and for the second year of a war, the United States expected over 400,000 soldiers and marines in the Pacific.8 Britain would have embarked on a similar campaign as the American island hopping campaign, if she would have had the same resources as America. However, British resources in the 1930s were too constrained for such ambition.

From 1919 until 1941, Britain’s “Singapore Strategy” fluctuated in scale as the resources to support the plan shifted. Very aggressive plans in the early 1920s shifted to incredibly defensive in the late 1930s. The plan reflected British defense priorities in a world rife with danger and more threats than resources.

Budget Maneuvers

The British Government and Press spoke of fortress Singapore, and the British public believed them. Eventually, the government believed their own hype. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was intimately involved in the decisions that hobbled Singapore and the Royal Navy. Churchill should have understood the reality: the propagandized and spirited defense was more of a pathetic whimper. As Singapore was coming under the gun, Churchill realized the error, and said:

“I ought to have known, and I ought to have asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”9

In 1925, Admiral Beatty, Winston Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain debated over fleet size and military construction projects at the new Singapore naval base. Admiral Beatty argued, “Britain vis-à-vis Japan in 1925 was worse off than vis-à-vis Germany in 1914 and Japan could deal a naval blow which they were absolutely powerless to prevent.” Admiral Beatty wanted naval facilities and the new dry dock in the Far East rapidly constructed. There were no suitable facilities to support the fleet east of Gibraltar. Chamberlain responded to the Royal Navy’s sense of urgency by declaring, “War in the Far East a remote prospect.” He could not conceive Japan “single-handedly taking on the British Empire, unless Japan was aided by some new European grouping.”10

In his quest for thrift, Churchill eliminated a garrison in Johore, Malaya, across from Singapore Naval Base. Singapore army commanders had stated that an “attack from that direction was unlikely because of terrain.” British officers did not believe an army could advance through Malaya, and that Singapore only needed defenses from the sea. Admiral Beatty argued that 15” Inch artillery pieces would “provide a complete deterrent and make Singapore absolutely safe.”11

When Churchill became Prime Minister, the improbable event that Chamberlain had described in the 1920s was in progress. Winston Churchill had many difficult decisions to make. Britain had to prioritize its own defense over the empire’s defense. Churchill knew that some places would come under the gun. Churchill believed the cost of Singapore naval base military construction meant Singapore should be the Gibraltar of the Far East and capable to withstand a siege of 180 days before relief.

Force Z and the Fall of Singapore

When France fell in 1940, the Singapore Strategy fell with it. Instead of steel hulls and shells, bluffs and the hope of US intervention would defend the Far East . Churchill’s priorities placed the defense of the Far Eastern colonies below the home islands and the Mediterranean.

The Far East was considered a third-string front and received equipment and untrained units accordingly. In Britain, the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire defeated the Luftwaffe over Britain. In Singapore, the majority of fighter squadrons flew the obsolete Bristol Buffalo against the Mitsubishi Zero. The troops and officers sent to reinforce the garrison in Singapore and Malaya were, according to Churchill, “an inferior troop of military and naval men.” Most of the Imperial Troops had been in the army for less than 90 days, and some of the Australians had enlisted only two weeks prior. Several Indian Brigades bound for training in Egypt were diverted en route to Singapore.12

The Singapore Strategy required the fleet. When the crisis came, the fleet was not available. Britain prioritized defending the Atlantic convoy routes, the Mediterranean, and the home islands. Only two capital ships could be spared to defend Singapore. The modern battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and three destroyers were sent to defend Singapore. Churchill requested an aircraft carrier as well, but none were available. This small fleet could not hope to defend Singapore against a concerted Japanese onslaught.

On December 8th, Force Z sailed from Singapore to search for the Japanese amphibious task force. The Royal Air Force was supposed to provide air cover, but poor weather and lack of inter-service coordination prevented air support for Force Z. Without air support, Force Z was vulnerable to Japanese air attack. Japanese aircraft located Force Z around 1015, and shortly thereafter, three successive waves of land-based Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers and Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers attacked Force Z. By 1300, both Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, December 10, 1941: Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. The battlecruiser Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. The battleship Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. The Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

At the War Office in London, the General Staff knew, “it was almost certain, once the Japanese had established themselves in northern Malaya, that Singapore was doomed.” The War Office never imagined an invasion of Malaya as the enemy course of action. With no recognition of a threat, British Malay had no defenses and ill-trained defenders.

Despite this qualitative disadvantage, Churchill said, “If I had known all about it then, as I know about it now, there were no substantial resources which could have been diverted from home defense, the desert, or from Soviet Russia.” After years of study and contemplation, Churchill said of the matter, “If it had been studied with the intensity with which we had examined the European and African operations, these disasters could not have been prevented, but they might at least have been foreseen.”13

The Far East had been determined to be least important of three important theatres of action, and since the situation there was the worst as well as the most remote, they were not going to receive the equipment they needed for the struggle. Britain’s assumptions for the defense of Malaya and Singapore were flawed. Britain had no tanks in Malaya. Britain had not expected Japan to land in Malaya, much less operate tanks in the jungles. Japanese tanks and bicycled mounted infantry achieved spectacular breakthroughs and rapidly advanced through Malaya.

Prime Minister Churchill’s actions are understandable—finite resources must be used economically—however, between 1919 and 1928, Churchill’s budgetary tactics greatly decreased the capacity of the British to withstand a future onslaught in the East. German rearmament began openly and in earnest in 1933. While Germany rearmed, British naval expansion was constrained by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the economic impacts of the Great Depression.

Conclusion

Actions taken decades before the war amongst the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster determined the outcome of the campaign in Malaya. Decades of government policy placed British forces defending the landing beaches of Singora and Kota Bharu at a major disadvantage. Fleet size had been reduced to save money during the inter-war years. In London, the government created plans and strategies but failed to source the ships, planes, and tanks to fight the battle, and the military infrastructure necessary to support the plan.

The maintenance of the two-power standard might not have saved Singapore, but the action might not have been so rapid and one-sided. Colonel Wilfred Kent Hughes, administrative officer of the 8th Division, summed it up nicely in his mock epic poem, Slaves of the Samurai:

…Perhaps a more important sphere

Had claimed priority in men and gear.

The troops on outpost had to pay the price 

Of wasted years of selfish Avarice.14

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

References

[1] Farrell, Brian and Hunter, Sandy (eds.), Sixty Years On, The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2002, pg 220.

[2] Bell, Christopher M, The Royal Navy, Sea Power and Strategy Between the Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pg 13.

[3] Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter, Sixty Years On, pg 32.

[4] Ibid, pg. 33.

[5] Bell, Christopher M, “How are we going to make war plans: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and Easter Warn Plans,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 1997.

[6] Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Sea power and Strategy Between the Wars, pg 67.

[7] Ibid, pp 86-76.

[8] Ibid, pp 96-97.

[9] Churchill, Winston S, The Second World War volume IV, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Mariner Books, 1985, pg 43.

[10] McIntyre, W. David, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979, pg 46-48.

[11] Ibid, pg 76.

[12] Swinson, Arthur, Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. pp 84-85.

[13] Farrell and Hunter, pp 160-62.

[14] Ibid, pg 293.

Featured image: LTG Percival and his Staff surrendering (Credit: https://www.historicwartours.com.au/blog/lt-gen-arthur-percival)

“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

CIMSEC was saddened to learn that renowned naval historian James Hornfischer passed away on June 2, 2021. He was 55.

To celebrate his memory, CIMSEC is reposting this interview we published on his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide.

By Christopher Nelson

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.


What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: First Wave of U.S. Marines landing on Saipan. (USMC photo)

Orit: The Fishing Boat That Saved Hundreds of Lives

By CDR (ret.) Dr. Eyal Pinko

The Yom Kippur War (1973) was a war of great victory for the Israeli Navy, in contrast to the Israeli Air Force and Army. The Navy’s success in the Yom Kippur War was the fruit of lessons learned by the Navy during the Six-Day War (1967), in which the Navy failed in most of its missions, even though they were insignificant in the grand campaign conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

After the Six-Day War, the Navy suffered a wide budget cut, with most of the IDF’s budget directed to strengthening the Air Force and the ground forces, which had proved their importance and capabilities in the war against the Arab armies. Moreover, during these years, the Navy experienced two disastrous events: the sinking of the INS Eilat by a barrage of anti-ship missiles from Egyptian missile boats (October 1967); and the loss of the submarine INS Dakar (January 1968).

In the process of drawing lessons from the Six-Day War and the other two events, the Navy realized that it must act with its relatively limited resources to build its power and develop a response to the naval threats of Syria and Egypt. The two countries’ navies began a buildup process that intensified in the 1960s by acquiring Soviet Osa-class missile boats, equipped with advanced Styx anti-ship missiles, a fairly novel capability at the time.

Following the war, Israel’s navy changed its combat doctrine and started operating with small and fast missile boats (which replaced larger surface combatants equipped with cannons). From the INS Eilat sinking’s lessons and insights, the Navy realized that it had to equip the new ships with advanced radars for long-range target detection and surface-to-surface missiles against the potential threat of dozens of Egyptian and Syrian Osa missile boats.

The Gabriel anti-ship missiles developed indigenously by the Israeli defense industry in the late 1960s were short-range missiles (about 11 nm). This range was significantly shorter than the Russian Styx missiles’ range (about 24 nm). The difference in the ranges of the two missiles created a significant operational problem for the Israeli Navy. The Israeli missile boats had to operate within the weapons engagement zone of the Russian Styx missiles’ to fight against the Osa missile boats.

To cope with the operational problem and enable the effective firing of the Gabriel missiles against the Osas, the Israeli Navy developed electronic warfare systems. The systems were meant to transmit electromagnetic signals based on understanding how the attacking missile’s homing seeker operates (active electronic warfare), along with the launch of decoy rockets scattering clouds of metal particles (chaff). The jamming signals, together with the chaff, made it possible to mislead the attacking missile’s seeker, thus diverting it from its flight trajectory and preventing it from hitting its target.

During the Yom Kippur War, more than 50 Styx missiles were fired from Syrian and Egyptian missile boats against the Israeli missile boats, but none of them hit intended targets. The Israeli Navy missile boats all returned to their base safely after sinking most of the Syrian and Egyptian Navy ships by firing Gabriel missiles under the electronic warfare systems’ protective umbrella.

When designing the electronic warfare systems to protect the vessels, the Navy assumed that the Soviet Styx missiles were designed for use against large ships and would not be able to hit small targets such as the Sa’ar-class missile boats. But an incident in 1970 completely changed the Navy’s mindset.

In May 1970, a fishing boat named Orit was sunk off the Egyptian coast by Styx missiles fired by the Egyptian Navy. The sinking of the fishing boat proved that the Styx missiles were also effective against small ships, forcing the Navy to change its electronic warfare systems’ design, capabilities, and doctrine. The sinking of the Orit and the deaths of two fishermen arguably saved the lives of hundreds of missile boat sailors three years later in the Yom Kippur War.

The Orit fishing boat

These were the days of the war of attrition. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was unwilling to accept the results of the Six-Day War, and in a speech delivered on May 1, 1970, he threatened to attack Israel by air, land, and sea. In his speech, Nasser emphasized that the Egyptian Navy would sink any Israeli ship found in Egyptian maritime territory without warning.

During the period between the two wars, many Israeli vessels sailed in the Bardawil Lake area (in the vicinity of Port Said, Egypt). Most of them were fishing boats, trying to make a living from the fisheries in the area. In order for the Navy to guarantee their safety, the fishing boats were required to report their location to the Navy four times a day (08:00, 13:30, 16:30, and 00:30).

The Orit was a relatively small fishing boat (about 20 meters long and with a tonnage of about 75 tons) that regularly operated from the port of Ashdod. The fishing boat had a four-person crew led by Captain Adam Yassar.

On Wednesday, May 13, 1970, about two weeks after Nasser’s speech, the fishing boat crew decided to sail towards Bardawil Lake, where there was a large quantity of fish and where nighttime fishing was relatively easy. That evening, about twenty miles from Bardawil Lake, the Orit sent its last location report on its way north. 

At about 22:30, between three and four Styx missiles were fired by the Egyptian Osas toward two Israeli Sa’ar-class missile boats that were in the Bardawil Lake area. The Israeli missile boats used their electronic warfare systems and were not hit by the Egyptian missiles, which were heard exploding in the distance. But shortly after the Styx missiles’ blasts were heard, the Orit mark disappeared from the radar screens of the Israeli missile boats. The attempts to call Orit went unanswered.

The next morning, May 14, no further report had been received from Orit and the loss of communication caused a great deal of concern. Extensive searches for the Orit began at sea using other fishing boats and Navy missile boats. That day, remnants of the fishing boat were discovered floating on the water. The remains of the boat were removed from the water and brought to Israel. Most of the boat’s hull remained on the seabed.

Two of the Orit’s crew survived the missiles and managed to float on the water. They swam for over a day toward the Sinai coast where their lives were saved. But two of its crew members, Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, did not survive.

Ackerman’s body was found floating on the water, and Adam Yaasar was trapped in the wheelhouse and drowned with the boat’s remains. Adam Yassar’s body was found only after about eight days by a commando unit team, who dived to search for him in the wreck of the boat left on the seabed.

One of the survivors, Oded Kopelnik, reported what happened and said that two Styx missiles exploded over the fishing boat and caused it to disintegrate and sink.

Following the incident, the Israeli Navy and its commander, Admiral Avraham Botzer, were severely criticized by the press, with concerns about the Navy’s ability to secure Israeli fishing boats and merchant ships in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The allegations were that the Navy did not build the maritime picture as required, did not maintain continuous contact with the Israeli fishing boats operating in the arena, and did not provide them with spatial protection from the threat of warships and Egyptian missile batteries.

The allegations were that the Navy had not drawn lessons from incidents in the years before the Orit’s destruction. The Orit’s sinking came two years after INS Eilat, the Navy destroyer, sank in the exact same area by the same model missiles fired by Egyptian missile boats. What is more, in February and April 1970, several months before Orit sank, the Navy was unable to prevent an Egyptian commando force’s daring operation to mine a vessel in the port of Eilat.

The Orit  incident was another layer in the allegations made against the Navy about its inability to fulfill its obligations to maintain the Israeli maritime border and the merchant ships’ security at that time. There were calls for establishing a state commission of inquiry to investigate the Navy’s sequence of failures, including the Orit incident, although an inquiry commission was never formed.

Epilogue

The Styx missiles fired from the Egyptian Osas were tracked in flight by the radar of the Israeli missile ships, as well as by the electronic warfare systems, which picked up the missile homing seeker transmissions and identified their operational logic. The electronic warfare systems identified that the missiles found a target and locked on it. 

In 2020, an interview with a retired Egyptian Navy admiral revealed more information about the incident. The admiral, who was the area commander at that time, noted that the fishing boat was observed in the radars of the Egyptian missile boats, and the decision to fire the missiles immediately was taken with the assumption that the fishing boat was an Israeli intelligence ship. 

During the Israeli investigation of the incident, one of the hypotheses was that the electronic warfare system of the Israeli missile boat may have diverted the Styx missiles that sank Orit. This hypothesis was eventually rejected and the confession of the admiral confirmed that the fishing boat was the intended target.

The seekers’ locking on Orit as a legitimate target led the missiles to navigate toward it and to detonate their warheads near the Orit (with the warheads weighing five hundred kilograms each).

The analysis of the Israeli electronic warfare systems’ recorded signals, together with the radar detection of the Styx missiles during their flight, later led the research and development teams of the Israeli Navy and the defense industry to understand that the Styx missile seekers captured Orit as a legitimate target, despite its small size and low radar cross-section (RCS). These insights led to a change in overall perceptions of anti-ship missile defense and enabled updating the electronic warfare systems in the Israeli Navy.

These changes, made before the Yom Kippur War and after the Orit sinking incident, enabled the Navy in 1973 to operate within the range of the Egyptian and Syrian warships’ Styx missiles. More than 50 missiles were fired without effect at Israeli Navy ships during the war. The Israeli Navy launched its Gabriel missiles, sank 44 Egyptian and Syrian ships, and returned back home safely without any casualties and losses.

The naval superiority achieved in the Yom Kippur War allowed Israel to control the sea trade and commerce routes and to secure the supply of weapons and ammunition shipped from the United States to Israel. These sea shipments created a logistical backbone to Israel and allowed the IDF to continue fighting in its various frontiers until military superiority was achieved.

The deaths of Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, whose exact place of death was never determined, changed the face of the naval battles in the Yom Kippur War and in the next decades.

In their deaths, they commanded us life. May their memory be blessed.

Eyal Pinko served in the Israeli Navy for 23 years in operational, technological, and intelligence duties. He served for almost five more years as the head of the division at the prime minister’s office. He holds Israel’s Security Award, Prime Minister’s Decoration of Excellence, DDR&D Decoration of Excellence, and IDF Commander in Chief Decoration of Excellence. Eyal was a senior consultant at the Israeli National Cyber Directorate. He holds a bachelor’s degree with honor in Electronics Engineering and master’s degrees with honor in International Relationships, Management, and Organizational Development. Eyal holds a Ph.D. degree from Bar-Ilan University (Defense and Security Studies).

Featured Image: A starboard beam view of an Israeli Sa’ar 3-Class fast attack craft, with visitors aboard. Three Gabriel surface-to-surface missile launch boxes are near the stern. (Photo from U.S. National Archives)

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

By Captain Benigno R. Alcántara Gil, Dominican Republic Navy

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Erratic Diplomacy and the Balance of Powers

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

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

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

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

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

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germanys Naval Build-up

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

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

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

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

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

Why was the Build-up so Frightening?

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Conflict Kinetic Dynamics

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

Schlieffen Plan (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.

12. The Encyclopedia Britannica online.

13. Business Insider online.

14. The Wall Street Journal online.

15. The New York Times online.

16. Foreign Policy Magazine online.

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Ibid. Pages 48-49.

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

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

14. Ibid. Page 178.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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