The Royal Navy had helped the British Empire win the First World War, but then it had to determine a path forward.
Hello everyone and welcome to the first members only episode of the History of the Second World War podcast. This is the first part of a three part series on Royal Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy in the run up to the Washington Naval Conference at the end of 1921. This episode will focus on the Royal Navy, the second on the Imperial Japanese Navy, and then the third will be on the actual conference itself. The years after the First World War would see nations all over the world uncertain about the future. This uncertainty came in many forms, but one of them would be the future of the navies around the world. All of this uncertainty would lead first to plans for massive building plans, but then while those plans were still being created the largest naval powers in the world would come together and crash one of the largest arms limitation treaties in history. In Naval Policy Between Wars. Volume I: The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism 1919-1929 Stephen Roskill and Corelli Barnett describe the world in which the conference would take place “The negotiations on disarmament took place against a background of constant rivalry between the principal naval powers. The ancient antagonism between Britain and France revived very soon after the end of hostilities in 1918; rivalry between France and Italy, especially in the Mediterranean, exerted powerful influence at the international conferences and was never resolved. The United States regarded the rise of Japanese sea power as a serious threat to her interests in the Far East, and the containment of Japanese ambitions soon became a cardinal purpose of American naval policy. From 1922 until about 1936 Britain also regarded Japan as the most likely challenger to her position in the world. Yet in spite of this community of interest between Britain and the United States naval rivalry between them played a very large part in the disarmament negotiations, and at times came near to wrecking the close association which had been achieved during the war.” All of these questions were important to the worlds largest naval power, the British Empire. Before the First World War the Royal Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world, after the war it seemed even stronger, after defeating the second largest navy in the world, the German High Seas Fleet. But there was a problem, the war had taken its toll on the British fleet and due to the amount of time it had spent at sea during the war most of the ships were in need of extensive and expensive refits. The British empire was also not in a great fiscal position, and this made it difficult to get the funds necessary to maintain the size of the navy, do the necessary repairs, and start new construction. There was a serious need for new ships as well, especially when both the United States and Japan initially announced that they planned to continue their wartime construction plans for new capital ships, all of which were technologically superior to anything in the Royal Navy. These new naval challengers presented new challenges to the British, who had previously been far more concerned with first the French and then the German Navies. Unlike the European navies the Americans and Japanese were across oceans, and their naval bases were on the opposite side of the world. This required the Royal Navy to begin thinking far more seriously about projecting large fleets around the globe. During this episode we will discuss some of those problems, and how the British planned to solve them between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the beginning of the Washington Naval Conference in November 1921.
Even before the war was over the Royal Navy started planning for what would happen after. This began in early 1918 with the creation of the Reconstruction Committee. This Committee was created to handle all kinds of topics, ranging from what should be suggested in the peace treaty to what to do with surplus warships, and then of course how to rebuild the Royal Navy. In trying to plan for the future there were serious ambiguities about how much money the Navy would be provided with after hostilities were over. Without some sort of guidance on finances definite plans were impossible but assessments were still completed and draft proposals were written. Shortly after the armistice was signed the first indication of the future was provided by the British civilian leadership, and it was basically that there would be drastic reductions beginning at the end of March 1919. In the official notification the Admiralty was informed that in the next set of Naval estimates ‘no steps may be taken which would commit H.M’s government to new expenditure on ships of war or on any form of warlike stores … without the specific approval of the Treasury being first obtained.’ Financial discussions and constraints with the government had been a constant feature of the years before 1914, but in the postwar years they had a very different tone. During the hey-day of the naval arms race with Germany the question was never whether or not to continue construction of new ships, but simply how many. In the postwar world there were discussions of laying down no new ships in the following year, and even taking the drastic steps of halting construction on the three battlecruisers which had already been suspended in February 1917. These were the sister ships of Hood, which was completed. By the end of 1917, these three ships would be cancelled by the Admiralty, but always with the hope that future construction projects would resume after the final peace treaties had been signed.
The discussions at the Paris Peace Conference put much of the naval planning on hold, there were still meetings of the Reconstruction Committee and the Naval Staff but there was always the understanding that nothing concrete could be done until after the treaty had been signed. During the summer of 1919, with the major negotiations in Paris completed, planning and negotiations between the Admiralty and the government could begin once again in earnest. Early in the summer the first number that was floated for the 1920-1921 Naval estimates was roughly 170 million pounds. However, by August 1919 the Cabinet notified the Admiralty that the maximum it was going to accept was 60 million. Obviously these numbers were quite disparate. An important part of the discussion was the role that the government envisioned for the Royal Navy in the following years, especially as it related to the continued increase in size of the American and Japanese navies. This was critical because the government’s suggested budget limit would require large numbers of ships and crewmen to be taken off the active lists and at the very least put in reserve. The specific question that would be asked of the Cabinet was a definitive answer to how the Royal Navy should react ‘as regards the supremacy of the seas over the United States and over any probable combination [of naval powers].’ This question would result in the much maligned Ten Year Rule. This was the idea that would affect all British military planning during the 1920s, and it was that the British military should assume that there would be no major conflict for the next ten years. Planning for a decade of peace put very clear constraints on the service branches when it came to budgetary questions. With this enforced constraint in mind the final budget for the Royal Navy for 1920-1921 was put at 84 million pounds. This number, even though it was higher than suggested by the Cabinet, would be accepted by Parliament without too much trouble. It represented roughly half of the previous years budget, and it would also be the last Royal Navy budget of the 1920s to pass through the government without a good deal of both scrutiny and opposition.
In the years after the war it is probably fair to say that there was more questioning of the role and purpose of the Royal Navy than at any point in the previous decades. Very few people would outright claim that the Navy should be abolished or greatly reduced, but it was a challenge for the Navy to convince enough politicians that it was a good idea to reignite new building programs after the Empire had spent so much winning the previous war. The Admiralty would try and make the case that while the Royal Navy had a lot of ships, many of them were technologically quite old. The real dividing line in terms of technology were ships built before and during the First World War, and especially those that were built after Jutland. Those built after Jutland incorporated the lessons that the Royal Navy believed it had learned during that confrontation. They were also just in general built using a new generation of technology that made them faster and more powerful. They were also much larger, and that meant more expensive. The only ship of this kind in the Royal Navy was the HMS Hood, which had been started in 1917. This one ship was balanced against the proposed building programs of the United States and Japan, with the United States program calling for 6 South Dakota class battleships and 6 Lexington class battlecruisers all of which would incorporate post-Jutland design concepts. In Japan they were planning on four Kaga class battleships and four Akagi class battlecruisers. All of these ships would be superior to anything in the Royal Navy other than the Hood, which would clearly cause issues for the Royal Navy in the future, even if it still had a larger number of ships. With this knowledge, and generally the assumption that these new programs would be completed, the Royal Navy began to formulate plans to start another large building cycle. Beyond the military and strategic justifications for this move they would also claim that it was critical from a labour perspective. There were many part of building a military vessel that were highly specialized, the armor plating, the large guns, and the gun mountings being the most important. If the Navy did not create new orders for the shipbuilders it was very likely that many skilled craftsmen would be laid off. With this loss of talent it was possible that the construction pause would have drastic ramifications far into the future.
One piece of the puzzle that the Admiralty greatly overestimated was the willingness of the American public to support another large naval building program after the end of the war. While the Admiralty was having some challenges getting funds allocated to new construction, their struggles were nothing compared with the challenges that the American Navy was having in getting money for new construction projects. There were problems getting enough money to allow for work to continue on the 1916 program, let along new funds for new construction projects after 1920. Further ship construction was just one project of many that the United States navy was trying to allocate funds to, with another being the creation and expansion of bases in the Pacific. These projects competed for the limited funds that Congress was willing to provide for military expansion after the end of the war. The result was that the United States Navy, while technically having announced and begun construction on a large number of ships as a result of the 1916 expansion program, were not thrilled with the idea of completing it. The result was that the Admiralty was using was using the United States as one of the reasons that they needed to restart a new construction program, while the Americans were on the verge of cancelling their own.
All of these considerations lead to the Royal Navy’s 1921-1922 estimates, which would be the last completed before the Washington Naval Conference would completely alter future plans. One note about the estimates, the reason that they are 1921-1922, instead of just 1921 is that the spanned the calendar year, with the British fiscal year running from March to March. The 1921-1922 estimates would once again be a time where the Admiralty would have to try and reconcile its initial thoughts and plans with the directions from the Cabinet. In its first outline of what it wanted the Navy’s number came out to about 98 million, but these would be reduced down to 85 million during the process of detailing the estimates. That would be the number that was sent to the Cabinet in late 1920, however after the beginning of the new year the Cabinet sent their response with the direction that the Admiralty should be aiming for a number closer to 60 million. Along with this new number, the cabinet also sent along some suggestions on how the navy could accomplish such a reduction, notably reducing capital ships in full commission from 20 to 8, a large reduction in personnel, and then a trimming of the fat that had developed on the Naval Staff. These types of suggestions were received by the Admiralty, but there was always some resistance to them. There were concerns that such a drastic reduction in the strength of the Royal Navy would result in the service being unable to perform its essential duties of protecting the empire. These budgetary restrictions were destined to become the norm and not the exception during the 1920s, and during the next year the Chancellor of the Exchequer would state that it was essential that the Royal Navy kept its budget under control due to the financial position of the country and that a ‘searching examination of current expenditure with a view to securing a large reduction in the estimates for 1922–23’ was required. These estimates would also prompt the British Imperial Defense conference to make it clear that the Royal Navy should be based on a one power standard, meaning that it only had to match the strength the next largest navy in the world. This went against the two power standard from the early 20th century, and then the push to always have some measure of power not just over the naval forces of Germany but also to have enough ships for duties around the world and against other naval threats. Even with the reality of a one power standard it was still a challenge for the Admiralty to try and reconcile its commitments around the world with the number of resources made available. The greatest issue was the rising strength of Japan, and the related needs of Imperial defense in the Pacific.
The problem of the Pacific would occupy a good deal of thought, writing, and discussions in the Admiralty during the interwar years. In May 1921 the Naval Staff produced a study about all of the concerns that it had if the situation arose that required a fleet to be sent from Europe to go to war with Japan. The scenario that the Admiralty was working under was a war with Japan beginning in 1930. The plan under such a scenario was to dispatch ships from home, through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, then the Indian ocean and into the Pacific. This would be not small voyage, and the logistical problems were mind boggling. The report said that it would be necessary to build new fueling stations along the route, and it it would also be necessary for the fleet to be ready to sail at a moments notice even before war was declared. The goal was always to send the fleet to Singapore, which it would protect from Japanese aggression and from which it would be based during the war. Even under the best possible circumstances, with the fleet being ready to sail and fully fueled, good weather, and 3 days warning for war, it would still take 40 days for the fleet to arrive in Singapore. Of course, such a movement could not be hidden from the Japanese, and so to prevent a repeat of Tsushima the fleet would have to proceed cautiously. Shortly after the report was released the Imperial Conference of 1921 began, which would run through the summer. These problems probably would have been discussed in some detail, however on July 10th President Harding made his public announcement about the forthcoming Washington Naval Conference which was scheduled for later in the year. This put much of the planning for the Royal Navy on hold, with even those decisions already made at the Imperial Conference being put on hiatus until after the Washington Conference was complete.
While many of the strategic and political decisions were in many ways up in the air due to budgetary concerns and pending international conferences, the design group with the Admiralty was hard at work planning the next generation of British capital ships. Many of the designs created at this time would not be built, due primarily to the decisions made at Washington and its resulting capital ship building holiday. Even if these designs were never implemented, they are still an interesting artifact of what could have been created if the conference would not have happened. One of the design characteristics that the British planners knew were being incorporated into Japanese and American designs were 16 inch guns. This decision was important because the largest guns on a British ship were the 15 inch guns on the Queen Elizabeth class battleships and the HMS Hood. Smaller guns would be at a disadvantage in a straight up fight, and this caused the Admiralty to want to increase the size of the guns in their next generation of ships. Instead of just matching the 16 inch guns present on foreign ship the initial designs would feature 18 inch gun. This would provide some level of superiority over at least contemporary designs from the other nations, although it was unlikely that the advantage would have been maintained. Along with the armament of the new ships, there were also some advances in the theory of how armor should be allocated, based mostly on the experiences during the First World War. The basics of this shift revolved around allocating available armor weight into different areas of the ship based on the longer engagement ranges expected after the events of the First World War. It also resulted in an attempt to concentrate armor into a smaller area, even if it left some of the ship unprotected. The Hood had been designed before these ideas had crystallized, and so while the ship did incorporate some lessons from the war, it would not have this new armor distribution which would leave it at a disadvantage. Instead the Hood’s armor was still spread out over the entire ship, which was a concept that was used before the First World War, and really before the dreadnought revolution. During the pre-dreadnought era there was generally more concern given to the secondary armament on capital ships. As the guns on capital ships grew larger and larger, and secondary guns disappeared, a fundamental change had to occur for how armor was distributed around the ship. The result was a shift to putting as much armor as necessary around just the critical parts of the ship, even if it left the rest of the ship almost entirely undefended. This structure was pioneered by the United States in the Nevada class battleships, but would soon be adopted by the other major navies. This restructured armor would be present on the first set of fully post war British designs which would be completed in June 1920. The goal was to arm the ship with 9 18 inch guns, mounted in 3 triple turrets, and to give the ship a top speed of 23 knots all within a displacement of 50,000 tons. There would also be a similarly designed battlecruiser with the same armament but a speed of 30 knots. When designing these larger and larger ships the Royal Navy had to try and work within some constraints that were difficult to work around. The most important was the depth of the Suez Canal. Ships larger than roughly 45,000 tons would not fit through the Panama Canal, and the Suez canal was even more restrictive. For a navy with commitments around the world these canals were crucial to Royal Navy mobility. This made even a 50,000 ton ship a bit problematic, and that estimated displacement was probably very optimistic. The only operational ship outfitted with 18 inch guns was the Yamato class, and it would have a final displacement of over 65,000 tons. Even with some concerns about the size of the ships the British officially ordered the battlecruisers of the G3 class before the Washington Conference began. However, this was mostly just an action to prove to the world that the British were serious about further building. Many within the government hoped that they would not need to be built, but they would be very expensive.
There were plans for future ships that were in various stages of design when the Washington Conference began, with design work always running several years ahead of any actual construction. One of these designs were the K and L battlecruisers and battleships. These would have been similarly large to the G series, with their size bringing forward concerns about the size of the dockyards available for construction. Then there was the M2 design which is interested to look back on because it tried to solve some of the armor allocation problems by placing all of the turrets together in front of the machinery spaces. This concept would also be used for the O3 class, which would eventually become the Nelson class. The L through O classes of design specifications were never seriously considered for production because none of them would fit within the 35,000 ton limit that would be imposed on capital ships during the Washington Conference. The design work was only really completed to prevent previous time spent on them from being a waste, and under the assumption that they might be useful in the future should the treaty expire. For historical study they are interesting because they are the largest British ships that would be designed during the interwar period. The 50,000 ton designs would be even larger than the King George V class ships built before and during the war and the proposed Lion class which was never completed.