151: All Around the World


We start the discussions about the naval war with the largest navy in the world: The Royal Navy.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 151 - The Early War At Sea Pt. 1 - All Around the World. This week a big thank you goes out to Troy for the donation and to Mirko, Dale, Gary, Jonathan, Andrew, Sam, Dondoozat, and Joanne for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. One of the enduring legacies of the Second World War was the unprecedented, and up to the current day un-replicated, scale of the naval war. Since ancient times wars have often contained both a naval component to go along with actions on land, but never before have as many men, as much time, and such huge quantities of resources been committed for fighting the war at sea as what would occur during the Second World War. This will be the first of what will be many episodes on the naval war over the course of this podcast, and so I thought I would just briefly discuss how naval matters will be discussed on the show. At times the events at sea are linked to events on land or in the air, in those cases the naval actions will be discussed along with those other topics in their specific series. For example the events around Malta in the Mediterranean contain both an air and sea component and so both of those will be discussed together. But there will also be other episodes that will be dedicated to strictly naval activities, like the next 12 episodes which will just focus on the naval activities that would occur between the start of the war and the invasion of Norway in April 1940. During the first three episodes of this series we are going to set the stage for the war, discuss the navies involved in the war in 1939 and 1940, before jumping into the opening moves of the conflict in episode 4. Then the second half of this series will focus just on two specific topics: The Adventures of the Admiral Graf Spee and U-boats. This episode will focus on the largest navy in the world in 1939, and the nation that had the greatest stakes in the naval war, Great Britain and the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was the strongest naval power in the world in 1939, but it can be so easy to forget that based on the events of the war. This is because even with its strength, the Royal Navy had the most obligations around the world which would force its strength to be spread around the globe. Before the during the war British leaders, and the leaders of the Royal Navy were forced to constantly play a balancing game between a limited set of resources and a seemingly unlimited number of ways they needed to be used.

While the Royal Navy had responsibilities all around the globe, those responsibilities were always centered first and foremost around Europe. In Europe there were two primary threats in the years before the war. The threat that would develop first was the Italian navy. The Regina Marina had long viewed the French Navy as its primary enemy, and the two navies would enter the Second World War on very comparable footings. Obviously this balance was in the favor of the British, so that was not the biggest problem with the Italians, it was instead the extreme importance of the Mediterranean to Imperial communications. For over a century before the Second World War the Mediterranean was seen as an extremely important area for the Royal Navy to control, to the point that for much of the time before 1906 there was more Royal Navy strength stationed in the Med than any other single area of the globe and it was seen was one of the most prestigious commands in the Empire. This extreme importance would change during the Anglo-German Naval Arms race that preceded the First World War, but the ability for the Royal Navy to project power in the Mediterranean was still seen as a critical part of the defense of the empire due to how much British traffic used the Suez canal to move between India and Europe. Of course the other major enemy in Europe was Germany. For 15 years after the First World War Germany was not legally allowed to have a modern navy due to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The Treaty limited the Germans to a few old pre-dreadnought battleships and some smaller craft, nothing that was any real threat to the other major navies in Europe. But this would change after Hitler came to power in 1933. There were several major developments around the German Navy during the second half of the 1930s which would cause great concern for the Royal Navy. The first was the construction of the Panzerschiffe, these were heavy cruisers that were powered by diesel engines, were a bit over 10,000 tons in displacement, and mounted 6 11" guns. Only three would be built, the last completed in 1936, but they would be a source of real concern in Britain because they tapped into one of the great concerns of the Royal Navy: surface raiders that would impact trade. The idea of German ships wandering the world’s oceans interdicting British trade would have a tremendous impact on British planning before the war, and the Panzerschiffe seemed perfectly designed to do just that. Was this threat real or imagined? You will have to wait for episode 6 of this series to find out when we track the actions of one of those Panzerschiffe the Admiral Graf Spee. The second major development would be the resumption of German U-boat production. The impact of German U-boats on British trade during the First World War had been a major problem, which is one of the major reasons that Germany was banned from building any submarines in the Treaty of Versailles. But as the restrictions of the treaty were lifted or ignored over the years, so too was the prohibition on the construction of submarines. This meant that in a war with Germany the U-boat threat would once again be present and would threaten British ships. The third major development was the resumption of large scale German naval construction in the second half of the 1930s. During this time the Germans would begin building destroyers, cruisers, and battleships just like other navies, with all of these ships creating a threat to the Royal Navy. There was an attempt to control the growth of the German Navy with the 1935 Anglo-German Naval agreement which limited the total tonnage of the German fleet to 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy, but this did not solve the problem it just sought to contain it. Eventually the treaty would be renounced by Germany in 1939. While these were the challenges in Europe, it is important to remember that none of these threats put the Royal Navy at great risk, the other navies around Europe were much smaller than the Royal Navy by 1939, but they could cause enough damage to the British War effort to cause problem

Another major threat to the global British war effort was in the Pacific, Japan. During the First World War Britain and Japan had maintained an alliance, primarily built around the idea that it was better for the two nations and their navies to work together. This alliance was beneficial to the Royal Navy because it allowed a greater percentage of its strength to be focused in other theaters, while it was beneficial to the Japanese because it increased cooperation between its navy and the most powerful navy in the world. Then after the war the Japanese would also be able to parley that alliance and its entry into the First World War into some Pacific Mandates which would be very useful for the Japanese war planning before the Second World War. However, in the years immediately after the First World War the relationship between Japan and the United Kingdom began to fall apart, mostly due to Japanese ambitions. These ambitions would eventually be contained by the Washington Naval Treaty, which Japan was permitted just 66% of the capital ship tonnage of the United States and Great Britain, but the agreement would not extinguish those ambitions, and over the 15 years of the naval treaty era in some ways the restrictions of the treaty served mainly to inflame those ambitions further. Factions within the Japanese Imperial Navy would chafe under the restrictions of the treaty, and when the Japanese finally exited the treaty they would begin and expand their construction efforts, as if to make up for lost time. From the Royal Navy perspective the size of the Japanese Navy was a problem, especially as the antagonism between the two nations continued to grow, but almost more important was the problem of geography. With both Germany and Japan appearing to be possible future enemies, and Italy also being a threat, the Royal Navy suddenly had powerful navies to contend with on opposite sides of the world. Under peacetime construction restrictions, and within the treaty system, there was no great way to deal with this problem, there simply were not enough ships to go around. The decision that was made would be to maintain the majority of Royal Navy strength in Europe, and then if a war started with Japan they would be sent to the Pacific as quickly as possible. But in the case of a war in Europe and against Japan, Europe would have to take priority and the British possessions in the Pacific would largely have to fend for themselves.


Now that the problems that the Royal Navy have been well established, it is time to look at what tools the Royal Navy to try and meet those problems. When looking at the evolution of the Royal Navy fleet during the interwar years, it is essential to start with the impact of the Washington Navy Treaty. In some ways the treaty was the worst possible thing that could have happened to the Royal Navy, in other ways it was the best. One of the reasons that it was worst was because of limitations it placed on ship building during the years that it was in effect, which was particularly problematic for the British due to the wide geographical spread of where it needed to maintain naval strength. It was more beneficial for the Royal Navy to build a lot of smaller ships than it was fewer larger ships, but with the tonnage limitations placed on capital ships, and the size of the capital ships already in the Royal Navy, there were only so many ships that could be retained. This problem would also extend to smaller ships with the 10,000 ton, 8" treaty cruisers limiting how many ships the Royal Navy could have and stay under its treaty tonnage allotment. But also, the treaty was the best thing to happen to the Royal Navy in the interwar years. In 1921 Britain simply could not afford another naval arms race after the economic trials and tribulations of the First World War. The treasury simply could not support it, and so anything that prevented a naval arms race between Britain, America, Japan, and other nations was a huge win for the Royal Navy. The naval treaties codified the fact that the Royal Navy would be the strongest, or at least tied with the United States Navy, navy in the world. During the treaty years the Royal Navy would continue to build ships, with multiple lines of cruisers and destroyers being built during the 1920s and early 1930s. They would also be allowed to build the Rodney and Nelson battleships, in recompense for the fact that most of the Royal Navy’s ships in 1921 were from the early dreadnought years and were inferior to the newer Japanese and American designs. There would also be some work on modernizing the capital ships of the fleet, with many of the larger ships undergoing a small modernization program in the 1920s to increase gun range and make other improvements. Then in the 1930s some ships were selected to undergo a far more drastic change, with ships like Warspite receiving a full modernization program that including a complete machinery replacement which would extend their useful life well into the war years. Not all of these modernization efforts would be complete by 1939 when they would be put on hold. Throughout all of the years of the treaty, a major restriction on the Royal Navy was funding, first during the 1920s as the nation recovered from the First World War and then in the 1930s it recovered from the Great Depression.

When the Washington Naval Treaty was signed in 1921 it was agreed that the treaty would only last for 15 years, expiring on December 31, 1936. In 1930 there would be a London Naval Conference which would amend the agreement, but would not extend it. In late 1934 the Japanese notified the other signatories that it would not be extending the timeframe of the agreement, which was due to expire at the end of 1936. This was a clear signal that they meant to begin a naval construction program which would have to be answered by other nations. Throughout the 1930s the Admiralty, along with design groups in every other nation, constantly designed, re-evaluated, and redesigned possible construction plans for when the treaty expired. For the Royal Navy this meant many conversations and discussions around the basic design tenants of capital ships, gun size, displacement, speed, etc. During the mid 1930s they would land on the 14" gun, which was in line with the size restrictions of the London Naval Treaty, as the best option for their next class of battleships. However, other nations would choose 15 and 16 inch guns at the same time, but by the time that the British discovered that their battleships, eventually the King George V class, would have smaller guns it was too late to change and it was decided that the delay for a redesign was not worth it. The construction of smaller ships, cruises and destroyers would also accelerate, and aircraft carriers would not be forgotten. The new construction program that was started after the expiration of the treaty would be large enough that by the end of 1940 the Royal Navy planned on being able to field 15 capital ships, 8 aircraft carriers, 70 cruisers, 145 destroyers, and 55 submarines. The vast majority of these ships would be completed, although many of them would simply replace the losses of the first two years of the war rather than serve to expand the size of the fleet.

From the perspective of simple raw numbers, the Royal Navy was the strongest in the world in September 1939, being able to put to see with 15 capital ships, 7 aircraft carriers, 66 cruisers, 184 destroyers, and 60 submarines. But within these numbers there are some hidden problems. For the larger ships, the capital ships and aircraft carriers there was a very wide range of capabilities due to the age of some of the ships. For example the R-class battleships were built before the First World War and had not yet been modernized, this primarily meant that they were slow, which was a problem across many of the British ships. On the Aircraft carrier side there were similar problems, with the designs of some of the older aircraft carriers clearly displaying the fact that aircraft carriers as a concept were relatively new and there had been a lot of evolution just in the 15 years before 1939. Other navies would have this same problem though, with some newer aircraft carriers built in the mid 1930s, like the Royal Navy’s Ark Royal, and others dating all the way back to the First World War which were mostly only viable as second line carriers. The Royal Navy would still have more though, outnumbering the Japanese or the Americans in 1939, although those numbers would change before the end of 1941. Six carriers were also under construction in the form of the Illustrious and Implacable classes which would begin to enter the navy near the end of 1940. One of the more unique challenges to the British, at least in comparison to the American and Japanese navies, was the status of the Fleet Air Arm. After the First World War the aircraft of the Royal Navy were part of the Royal Air Force, this was seen as important by the RAF as it tried to ensure that it maintained its independence that it had gained near the end of the First World War. But it also meant that the Royal Navy was often struggling to get the resources allocated to Naval air operations by the Royal Air Force. This would not change until 1937 when control of the air power on British carriers was brought under the Admiralty. This allowed for just a few years to reverse the partial neglect that it had experienced over the previous 2 decades. On the other hand, the Royal Navy was the only navy in Europe with Aircraft carriers, so there naval aircraft were better than all the others that did not exist. I will also just close this section around the strength of the Royal Navy in 1939 by stating that, while in total the Royal Navy was the largest in the world, it is hard to not discuss at least briefly the the vast chasm between the size and strength of the Royal Navy in 1914 and 1939. On August 26, 1939 the Home Fleet would sail from Scapa Flow to begin its first war patrol of the entrances to the North Sea. It would contain just 4 capital ships, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, and 10 destroyers, “scarce as many as the vanguard of its [navy] in the days of its power.” Yes, the navies of the world had changed, war at sea had changed, and the enemy was greatly reduced in strength, but it was clear even from the very beginning that the naval war between Germany and Britain would be very different in this new war than what it had been in the last one

When planning for a war, the possibility of a fleet engagement in the Jutland style always existed, but especially in European waters that type of fleet engagement seemed unlikely given the enemies that would be faced, especially given the fleet composition of the German Navy before 1939. What did seem more likely is that Germany would pursue a war against British trade using both surface raiders and U-boats. The threat of these attacks on British trade would force the Royal Navy to respond by spreading its strength out over a very wide area. Before and at the start of the war this would also prompt a tremendous amount of resources to be poured into the construction of destroyers and other small escort vessels, which delayed other projects. It would also force larger ships to be dispersed into the trade routes to protect against ships like the Panzerschiffe or other German ships that were able to escape into the North Atlantic. These actions usually did not result in the Royal Navy losing ships, although there would be a few notable HMS Hood sized examples of that, but it did serve to spread out the strength of the Royal Navy. For example there would be a considerable period of time where battleships and aircraft carriers would be called upon for convoy defense. Along these these attacks on British trade, the standing war plans for the Royal Navy also involved a blockade of German trade on the same model that had been pursued during the First World War. This blockade would be a distant blockade of the North Sea with the cooperation of the French, with the hope that the effects on Germany and Italy would be largely the same as the effects on Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1914 and 1918. During that earlier war the British led blockade had been very problematic for the continental powers, particularly in the area of food and critical imports like rubber and oil. There were similarly high hopes placed on such a blockade in the 1930s, although the results would be disappointing. The dedicated to the blockade plan, and the defense of British trade, also meant that at least in the first phase of a war in Europe the Royal Navy would largely be on the defense. This aligned perfectly with the broader national strategy which was firmly based on the belief that Britain and France had the advantage in a long war. This is such an important assumption to understand, the military and political leadership of Britain and France were absolutely convinced that no matter what the relative military strength of Germany was in 1939 if they could withstand the initial German attacks, they would be victorious in a long war. They were technically right, but in late 1940 it sure was not looking like they were, and much of the criticism of the actions and plans of the two nations, including those of the Royal Navy, can come under criticism because of it. When working under the assumption that the long war favored Britain, the defensive strategy of the Royal Navy made a lot of sense

In August 1939, war seemed imminent, and it was, and the Royal Navy would put in place its plans with the ships that it had available. In some areas the first months of the war would proceed much as expected, patrols would begin of the North Sea, convoys would start shaping up. The Germans would launch their U-Boats against British trade, and there would be some surface raiders. The Royal Navy would react along the lines of prewar plans, with convoy defense from destroyers and hunting groups sent after the surface raiders. It would settle in for a long war, and it a long war it would get