16: ...Prepare for War


We have spent a lot of time discussing the budgets, ships, and plans of the Royal Navy. How did those plans begin to shift as war seemed to be more and more imminent.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode 16. We are going to close out our series of episodes on the Royal Navy with a discussion of how the Royal Navy trained for the war, the final preparations for September 1939, and then what happened immediately after the start of hostilities. Over the last five episodes we have discussed in some detail the ships that the Royal Navy was building, and where they planned to use them around the world, but in this episode we will get a bit more detaileda bout how they were preparing to fight a war, and then the frantic nature of the preparations as war appeared to just months, weeks, and then days away. It was in those months, and then the early months of the war when all of the British preparation and planning would be put to the test, and in some cases they would prove to be the correct moves, like the massive effort put into the creation of small trade escort vessels, while other decisions would prove to far less fortuitous. The events and actions of the Royal Navy will obviously play a huge role in our story of the war, especially in the first several years when the German threat was at its peak and Japan and America had not joined the conflict, and in those events the Royal Navy was forced to act within the constraints it had placed upon itself in the years before the war.

When it came to the overall planning and structure of the Royal Navy on the eve of the war, the evolution would begin after the First World War, at a time when it would go through a bit of chaos as the conflict ended, and then again after the Washington Naval Conference. Massive budget cuts for the Royal Navy resulted in large numbers of ships being decommissioned, which was matched by ever other Navy in the world. Along with this the Royal Navy had the benefit of the fact that the German fleet, which had driven so much expansion before 1914, no longer existed. Other continental rivals were also not in a position to challenge the Royal Navy, with France in a horrible economic condition and Russia in the midst of revolution and civil war. Even with these facts, the organization of the fleet was similar to what it had been during the war, with the Main fleet focused in home waters, what were termed ‘detached forces’ in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and then Local Defense Forces at various points around the world. As we have discussed several times over these episodes, the rising power of Italy and Japan during the 1930s would cause this structure to be re-evaluated over the course of the interwar period. For example, there were proposals during the late 1920s to move more strength out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Fleet. Many of these moves during the interwar period were suggested and sometimes carried out due to the specific assumed threats around the world and how the Royal Navy planned to address them. The plans that were made included plans for war against France and Italy, even when they were very friendly with Britain. There were also some plans for a war with the United States, but only under the definitive statement that it would be an incredibly bad idea. The Royal Navy would be forced into a defensive stance in such a conflict, which posed incredibly challenges for defending the empire. Instead of preparing for such a war in a serious way, the Royal Navy went the other direction and fostered closer relations with the United States Navy. Technical information was shared and the Americans were given access to Gibraltar and Malta as port facilities. Then in the 1930s the German Navy began go grow, this almost demanded tha tmore resources be moved out of the Mediterranean, which had been seen as the primary European naval theatre due to the increase in tensions with Italy. This shift in resources was seen as the only way to provide proper defense for the Atlantic shipping convoys.

While there were some good guesses around what the next war would look like, there were also some mistakes that were made. Here is Joseph Moretz from The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship in the Interwar Period: An Operational Perspective “At the tactical level, the Royal navy made two key assumptions about the future of naval warfare that would prove to be false. First, it assumed that the next naval war would be fought in a chemical environment, and one of the first measures taken at the time of the Abyssinian Crisis was to ship decontamination stores from Britain to Malta for use by the Med Fleet. Second key assumption was that, notwithstanding the importance of the aircraft carrier to fleet operations, a fleet action would continue in the event of their loss or damage. The assuption implied that a foreign navyal power would continue to seek battle rather than disengage if such an aircraft loss occurred, and unconsciously confirmed that the final arbiter in a surface action remained the capital ship.” During the war both of these assumptions would prove incorrect, as there would be no meaningful chemical threat to capital ships, and generally the first thing that ships would do when they lost air cover was to run away as quickly as possible. There was a recognition that large ships were very threated by air power though, and this problem would be evaluated, as well as it could, in several interwar exercises. A report published in January 1939 emphasized this threat, containing the claim that the Admiralty should expect 2 hits on every capital ship for each bomber shot down by anti-aircraft fire. This caused a frantic order for large numbers of new anti-aircraft guns, but it would prove to be too late to make too much of a change to total anti-aircraft ability of the fleet.

While ships were being moved around the board, training became a major concern. At a tactical level the ‘Manouvering Orders’ and the ‘Battle Instructions’ were the two doctrinal statements, with the manourvring orders discussed fleet positioning while the battle instructions laid out what ships should do during a confrontation. Just like so many other areas these would also evolve over the interwar period. Part of this was due to the experiences of the First World War and also due to the fleets that the Royal Navy expected to fight in the next war. Coming into the First World War the Grand Fleet had been prepared to fight in the classic line ahead setup, with ships following one another to bring as much broadside as possible on the enemy. Everything that the fleet did was built around this, for example cruising formations were constructed to allow the ships to come into line as quickly and efficiently as possible. This was altered for two reasons, the first was the power of the torpedoes, with the movements needed to avoid torpedoes playing havoc with a line ahead formation, and the line making a great target for torpedoes as well. The second reason was due to how the British expected their enemies to fight. This was most important during the 1930s as the Germans rebuilt their fleet, and the Royal navy assumed that they would not opt into a Jutland style battle. The line ahead, due to its structure, was not good for quick changes of direction and speed, and really worked best when the enemy was doing the same thing. Instead the British brelieved that they would have to fight in a far more dispersed manner, probably with several battlegroups at a time that would move and react to the enemy. The British would have preferred the more concentrated action, they had the most ships overall, but they did recognize that it was unlikely. The outcome of this was that the Royal Navy of 1939 was fully prepared to fight in high manoeuvrable divisions. This provided much greater flexibility in the face of enemy actions that would probably mirror such a setup. While this was not the preferred setup, as the war experiences would show, optimizing for these small battle groups was absolutely the correct course of action for the Royal Navy. This would be most apparent in the convoy protection duties that they were forced into during the early years of the war. So if the theory was sound, were they able to make it happen. Well, personnel were a problm as well, because in the years after the First World War, and the constant reductions in personnel that followed, there was a constant churn of naval personnel. There also simply were not enough of them, and most ships were never manned by more than a fraction of their full crews, which made lengthy long term exercises almost impossible. This shortage of men was bad enough during the 1920s and 1930s, but then by the time that the Royal Navy started to expand in the late 1930s, it very quickly found itself short of junior officers. There was a smaller pool of experienced men and officers to pull from for these positions, and this would only become more problematic during the war years. During that time, due to losses at sea and then further naval expansion, the total talent of the Royal Navy was greatly dilluted. This problem was recognized by First Lord of the Admiralty Alexander and during this stint as First Lord he would make some changes. Alexander was a Labour party member, and the reforms that he made fell in line with those political beliefs. He made it easier for working class individuals to become naval officers, instead of the traditional middle and upper classes which could afford the tuition at Dartmouth College. The Sea Lords were not necessarily in favor of this, but Alexander continued to push for it, and the recruiting pool would be expanded. There were also efforts to make it easier for non-officers in the navy to make the jump to a commission, which was very favorably viewed by those men who now had new opportunities. Attempts were also made at this time to make wide ranging reforms of the naval disciplinary code, but this proved to be a reform too far, and would not be completed before the fall of the Labour government, and the removal of Alexander in 1931.

Training was also a problem, in all aspects of Naval warfare. For example in the area of gunnery practice budget constraints would be just as much of a problem as in other areas. After the First world war was over there was no shortage of surplus naval mmunition that could be used during shooting practice, but then as that ammunition was used it was not replaced. This caused a mandatory curtailment of gunnery practice, especially for the largest guns in the fleet. This was seen as a major problem, in no small part due to the expected engagement ranges that the Royal Navy believed future naval battles would be fought at. There were everal different pieces of technology that tried to assist gunners in actually hitting things. On board there were two different polts, one that was 5 miles to an inch which was used to track fleet movement, then a tactical plot which was one or two miles per inch which was used to actually assist in gunnery. There were also some advancements in fire control that allowed all of the guns of the ship to be fired using a single director. This synchronized aiming and replaced the turret based aiming of earlier years and this allowed for much greater control, especially when trying to lay all of the guns of an entire fleet on the same target. But these methods of controlling fire were only as good as the sailors that were using them, and as gunnery practice decreased so did the expected hit rates. This led the Royal Navy to begin serious discussions about emphasizing night fighting and other methods of drastically reducing engagement ranges. This was seen as a way to neutralize any range and accuracy advantages enjoyed by other navies. The likely furthest range that a fleet could be engaged aws 27,000 yards and even further, with the Japanese and Americans planning for similar ranges, but at that distance hits were seen as a rarity, and the ehope was that these could be reduced as much as possible. All of these possible shifts in operating procedure were tested in various fleet exercsises, which grew both in frequency and intensity during the last years of the war. This included RAF participation, which often involved testing aerial reconnaissance and coordination between naval and aviation assets. Remember that during most of the 1930s the RAF was still in control of all aviation asset aboard ship. It was during this time that a lot of consideration was given to other tasks that would be required of the Royal Navy. For example in the Naval War Manual that was written in 1938, trade defense was a major topic that was covered. This would presage the focus that the Royal Navy and the government would put on the mass creation of trade defense ships after the war began.

While in some areas real changes were being made and real realizations were occuring that would shift how the Royal Navy planned to fight a war, one unresolved problem would continue to be the Admiralty’s plans for the Far East. To recap, the Royal Navy’s official plan for a war with Japan was for the base at Singapore to hold out against any Japanese attacks while a fleet was concentrated in Europe to be sent to the Far East. However, there would be yet another report that would question whether or not the plan was possible for in any way feasible. This would be created during a conference in Singapore in June 1939. This general conclusions of this report was that Singapore was not nearly strong enough to stand up to a large siege, especially if the Japanese were to capture land around the city and launch a land assault. Because of this the only way that a long defense could be mounted was by holding more territory on the Malay peninsula, which would require more resources. Of particular importance were the airfields that were northeast of the city. More resources could not be sent though, as they were needed in Europe. These shortcoming were made even more problematic when the Royal Navy extended the period in which Singapore would be without fleet support, when it increased the expected arrival time of the fleet from 70 to 90 days. This was honestly a far more accurate assesment of the situation, and the 70 day figure was always quite optimistic. However, as war seemed to be coming closer and closer in Europe, the plans for doing anything in a war with Japan became more and more problematic. In what was an understatement would Admiralty memo would say ‘There can be no doubt that the intervention of Japan would be a serious threat to our position in the Far East’. One of the major problems was that Italy seemed firmly in the German camp by the summer of 1939, which meant that the Royal Navy had to be very concerned not just with defending the Mediterranean, but also could not move a fleet through it and towards Singapore. The growing power of Germany was also a concern, obviously, the defense of home waters would always fall higher in priority than the Far East, with the estimates in August 1939 putting the requirement of having 6 capital ships in home waters at all times to deal with the two German Scharnhorst class battleships, and then the Deustchland Class pocket battleships. This was even before the Bismarck really entered the picture. With these requirements, the maximum that could be sent to face the Japanese were seven capital ships and one aircraft carrier, and even in that case it would include ships that were less than ideal, like the unmodernized Queen Elizabeths. Even these numbers were based on the optimistic assessment that at the very least the Italians would stay Neutral and the French would be able to massively counterbalance the Italian threat in the Mediterranean. As late as November 1939, so after the war had started in Europe, Australia and New Zealand were asking the Admiralty to reaffirm their stance on Singapore, and promises were given that it would be given priority over the Mediterranean. However, this was given before the disaster that was summer 1940, and after the fall of France any assistance by the French Navy was no longer possible, which made any dispatch of sizeable Royal Navy forces simply impossible.

The 1939 construction program would be heavily disrupted, but when it was outlined in early 1939, after the massive construction of the previous years, it represented something of a reduction in the overall expansion of the navy. but even with some of these restruction the plan was still massive by pre-rearmament standards with two battleships and a carrier to be laid down along with many smaller ships. It doesn’t really make sense to go too much deeper into this plan because it would be drastically changed over the following months, with the battleships cut in favor of larger numbers of smaller ships that could be used in trade defense. Part of these changes were also simply short term boosts to ships available, with longer term projects like the 16 inch Lion battleships seen as a worthy investment but ones taht would take too long to pay off. There had already been heavier emphasis on these smaller ships after the Munich Crisis when the war seemed imminent, and this would continue. This is also where the Vanguard would come into play, simply as a way to get a capital ship out as soon as possible. All of these changes became more urgent when Hitler officially denounced the 1935 agreement which had put limits on German construction. This was not an unexpected move, but it was just yet another reason that immediate naval power was so important.

Then the war started. Before September 1939 there had been some situations where the fleet had prepared for war, for example during the Munich Crisis the Mediterranean had fully prepared for war with war loads of ammunition being placed on ship. Then a week before the start of the war itself, an ‘Immediate Telegram’ was sent by the Defence Preparedness Committee. This was different than a ‘Warning Telegram’ that would have meant that war was imminent, instead the Immediate Telegram just informed the appropriate officers that the situation was critical. Another notification was given to all merchant ships to not put into German or Italian ports, out of concern that they would be stuck there for the duration. The program to transition some merchant ships to Armed Merchant Cruisers also began while some trawlers began to be kitted out for anti-submarine duties. At the start of the war the total combat ready strength of the Royal Navy was 12 battleships and battlecruisers, 6 carriers, 58 cruisers, and 100 destroyers. However, there were a huge number of ships under construction, almost 150 of them which had all been started in the previous 3 years. Of course not all of those would be completed, but during the early months of the war many of the smaller ships would come online. The vast majority of this strength was concentrated in home waters and the Mediterranean. In mid-July the step had also been taken to active the reserve fleet and to bring on several groups of reservists to bring those ships far closer to a ready state. In the Mediterranean the Fleet was prepared to make the move from Malta to Alexandria. The general feeling was that Malta was simple too exposed, being so close to Italy. The port facilities in Alexandria were less impressive, but this was felt to be a reasonable trade off for additional security. On September 1st that ‘Warning Telegram’ would finally be delivered, with both Germany and Italy named as potential enemies, this was not the declaration of war notification, but it put the Navy on a war footing. Mobilization was called for, including the full activation of all naval Reserves. Then the signal to the fleet that hostilities had commenced was delivered at 11:15AM on September 3. In the Mediterranean the fleet made its official move to Alexandria. In home waters the Home Fleet started mobilization as well. The primary base of the fleet was moved to Scapa Flow, for some of the same reasons as it had been during the First world War. It was ideally positioned to maintain a distant blockade of the North Sea. There were also new reasons though, primarily that it was out of range of possible German air attack, something that was not true for bases further south. One of the primary problems of the Home Fleet, at least when it came to the larger ships of the fleet, was age. Several of the ships had not been modernized when the war started, including thips like the Hood which was scheduled to go into port for its modernization the same month that the war started. Scapa Flow was also not the impenetratable fortress that the Royal Navy would have liked. Its defenses would prove to not be ready for a proactive set of German submarine attacks. Over the course of the first months of the war a lot of things would then proceed to not go at all the way that the Royal Navy had hoped. A lot of faith had been placed in the blockade to have much the same effect as it had during the First world War. The economic situation was completely different though, with the Germans able to capture wide swaths of Eastern Europe which gave then much greater access to raw materials that they did not have during the First World War. Then the invasion of Norway happened, then the invasion of France, and any plans for a North Sea Blockade evaporated. Meanwhile the Home Fleet would be parcelled out for a variety of tasks and duties to try to react to what the Germans were doing. From reinforcing the defense of Norway to convoy defense, to trying to chase down German commerce raiders. In the end the first two years of the Second World War would be nothing like the First World War, at least for the Royal Navy. Instead of an iron clad cordon held around the North Sea they would instead be faced with what felt like enemies at all corners. The Germans and their commerce raiders, both U-Boats and surface ships. New threats based on the capture of Norwegian and French ports. In the Mediterranean they were faced by an Italian navy that, at the very best occupied a lot of Royal Navy ships, and at worst threatened to evict them from the Mediterranean. And that was all before the entry of Japan into the war.