Some Reflections upon the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939- 1945, and Historic Maritime Operational Research – III & IV
David Waters concluded his 1995-1996 series of reflections on the Battle of the Atlantic [84/2 & 84/3] by returning to the question of convoy ‘laws’ and his concern that ideological assumptions and abstract thought concerning future operations would once again take precedence over the scientific conclusions he had reached forty years before. A 25 minute read.
Seventy years ago, the noted mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead observed:
“There is an error… of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of… the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy.”
Whitehead was referring to cosmological philosophy. The use of the terms ‘sea routes’, ‘supply lines’, ‘sea lines of communication’, or ‘SLOCS’, in place of the word ‘ships’ in the philosophy of maritime war is a classic example of ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. This fallacious usage was, in consequence, “the occasion of great confusion,” and waste of operational effort in Allied maritime strategic thinking in the First, and in the Second World Wars, as it has been (is still?) in NATO maritime strategic thinking since.
The basic cause of this confusion is that, in order to think, in common with everyone else, seamen and airmen first picture their thoughts in their mind, organise them, and then express them in spoken or written words, or depict them on charts, or diagrammatically. Consequently, their custom of thinking strategically in pictures of ‘misplaced concreteness’, e.g. pictures of ‘networks of immeasurable criss-crossing, radiating, converging sea lines of communication’ termed, for brevity, ‘SLOCS’ is the ‘occasion of great confusion’ – because, in reality, at sea, SLOCS do not exist – although in NATO’s philosophy of war, and so in NATO maritime strategic thinking, they do.
However NATO maritime strategists recognise neither the unreality of their terminology, nor the consequential confusion in their philosophy of maritime warfare. Ships can load cargoes, can carry cargoes, can be sunk, and, if not sunk on passage, deliver cargoes. Furthermore, the material consequences of a ship being sunk, like the rest of its activities, can be calculated. This is because ships, and their cargoes are concrete entities, and the results of their activities can be calculated.
In stark contrast to ships, ‘sea routes’, ‘supply lines’, ‘sea lines of communication’, ‘SLOCS’ are all abstractions; all are intangible, all figments – they have no existence except in the imagination; in the real world, the world of seas and oceans, none exists. No one throughout the whole of human history, from Adam and Eve downwards, has ever seen, let alone sunk a SLOC; for the reality is that SLOCS, and all the rest of the analogous jargon, do not exist!
Similarly, in stark contrast to ships, SLOCS cannot load cargoes; SLOCS cannot carry cargoes; SLOCS cannot deliver cargoes. Having no reality in this world SLOCS cannot be attacked, cannot be sunk, cannot be calculated. Nevertheless, SLOCS are drawn, as they first operationally were, as thin lines on a map, in 1874 (Figure 6); or delineated on a chart, as they were in 1885 (Figure 7), or even, as more recently by NATO strategists, depicted as sea areas of vast extent, ‘the Atlantic SLOC’! But, the harsh fact is, SLOCS, I repeat, do not exist!
Solomon in his Wisdom said so too, though poetically, long centuries ago:
“All those things are passed away… as a ship that passeth over the waves of the water, which when it is gone by, the trace thereof cannot be found, neither the pathway of the keel in the waves…”
The term ‘sea lines of communication’, and similar suggestive terms first came into use commercially with the growth in numbers of oceanic steamships in the 1850s. Their direct passages, in contrast to the sailing ships’ circuitous ones dictated by the wind systems, began to be delineated on maps as lines. These were described as ‘routes’, ‘sea lines of communication’, etc., in fact, unrealistic figurative terms. Their use rapidly led to the fallacy of ‘misplaced concreteness’. By the 1870s the terminology had become customary and, with it the error of ‘misplaced concreteness’ indulged in so freely today by NATO’s maritime strategists, and planners; indeed, both are now common in the writings (and therefore the thinking) of not a few students and historians of strategic sea affairs who do not recognise the consequential errors in their reasoning.
The psychological cause of the use of this now widespread fallacy in maritime strategic thinking of ‘misplaced concreteness’ has been given, indirectly, by an academic civilian, Professor J. Z. Young. In introducing Whitehead’s Science in the Modern World, of 1925, (quoted from above) in 1975, to another generation of readers, he observed:
“Once we have given a name to some abstract entity or quality we tend to apply to it the same grammatical treatment as we should give an object that could be seen and touched.”
Which is to say, in effect: it was the habitual use of ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ by Naval and Air Staffs, before and during each of the last two World Wars, which in large part accounted for, as it will again in any future maritime war, the deaths of tens of thousands of merchant seamen, for the loss of thousands of merchant ships, carrying tens of millions of tons of lost ‘war cargoes’ – weapons, food, fuel, and the raw materials for waging modem war; sunken ships, whose ever accumulating lost cargo carrying capacity (throughout the duration of the war) jeopardised for agonising years the outcome of the whole of the Allied war effort, on land, from the air, at sea.
To return from the Battle of the Atlantic to the present. It is of no use for a fighting service to have the most sophisticated ships and weaponry ever made if the brains directing it are obfuscated by the confusion of thought caused by the use of unrealistic jargon – misplaced concreteness. That way lies certain defeat.
Admiral Donitz never made the error of ‘misplaced concreteness’. Addressing his U-boat captains he said (I use in translation the equivalent English seaman’s concise, robust, monosyllabic, unambiguous words to convey his order): “Your task is to sink ships.”
Donitz had no illusions about SLOCS… Moreover, he knew from personal wartime experience as a U-boat captain of the First World War that to attack a ship in convoy was the most hazardous operation that a U-boat captain could attempt. He had made the attempt in 1918, and he had been captured by one of the escorts, his U-boat sunk.
A few years after the last World War, I delivered a paper at a Naval Conference convened at HMS Vernon. It presented the results of a study of a hitherto neglected aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic that I had just completed – fortuitously comparing the loss rates and the delivery rates of ships which had been sailed, respectively, in convoy, and independently through UK waters sown, by Nazi submarines and aircraft, with, respectively, sweepable (moored contact) mines, and unsweepable (then) ground magnetic mines, between January and April 1940.
This numerical analysis showed that “convoy reduced the potency of the enemy’s mine attack as a whole by 75%.” And “That the loss rate (the ratio of ships sunk to ships sailed) of independent ships was not less than 6.7 times that of ships sailed in convoy.” Moreover, as this ignored the numerous convoy ‘camp followers’ (ships sailed independently, but with Masters convoywise from World War I experience) I concluded that, in fact, “the independent loss rate was at least seven times as great as that of ships in convoy,” accompanying my words with the requisite supporting graphs, diagrams, and plans to ensure rapid visual comprehension of the various verbally expressed numerical facts.
The “practical value of this piece of numerical historical maritime research” I expressed as follows:
“Maritime history shows that in war the scale of effectiveness of our war effort, naval, military, civilian, and air, depends not upon incomputable abstractions, such as the safety of our sea routes, but upon something at once tangible and calculable, the quantity of cargo carried safely by our ships. It depends upon the safety of, in fact, our ships. The quantity of cargo carried safely by them is determined by two computable and inter-related factors, the ship delivery rate – the amount of cargo delivered by shipping over a period of time, and the shipping loss rate – the ratio of ships sunk to ships sailed. These two vital statistics – delivery rate and loss rate – of our ships decide for this country the issue of a war. They are indeed vital statistics.”
The purpose of maritime war
Which is why I do not subscribe to (though I respect) Lieutenant Commander Gardner’s “triad of questions, why, how, and by whom naval (my italics) history should be written” (NR, April ‘95, p. 159).
Sea wars are not fought to gain ‘command of the sea’ by naval forces; the ‘why’ naval histories are customarily written to record, few to analyse. Consequently they are apt to mislead many seamen and airmen who take the trouble to read them. Sea wars are fought for a specific, and tangible, measurable purpose, namely, to enable one opponent to use his ships, of every sort, including aircraft, efficiently how, when, and where he wants, and to deny his opponent the ability to use his ships and aircraft likewise.
Maybe the sage Sir Francis Bacon summed up this aim most pithily four centuries ago with his self-coined aphorism, “who commands the sea is at great liberty, and may take as much and as little of the war as he will,” but he was a lawyer (and a crooked one to boot), as well as a philosopher and essayist, but never a seaman; and his brevity here, though it has the spice of wit, obfuscates (not for the first time in his life) the truth.
A recent example of the successful use of ships, and of shipborne aircraft, and of the prevention of the use of ships and of aircraft by an opponent, was the Falklands war of 1982. Then British warships, and ship-borne naval aircraft were used to ensure the safe passage of troopships, and sea transports carrying troops, military supplies, weapons, and vehicles, including fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, 8,000 miles across the North and the South Atlantic oceans to the recently invaded Falkland Islands. This was done to enable British soldiers to retake, with the indispensable co-operation of ship-borne aircraft, the recently Argentinian invaded islands, so remote from Britain, so close to Argentina.
The operation succeeded because these same British maritime forces prevented the Argentinian Commanders from using their warships, sea transports, and aircraft effectively to do what they wished to do – to repel the British, and to retain possession of the Falkland Islands. It is to be noted that the remoteness of the islands from Britain, and from British overseas land bases, effectively prevented the – land-based – aircraft of the Royal Air Force from taking any significant part in this essentially maritime war. Indeed, from start to finish, the outcome of the Falklands War depended, in essence, upon the skill and courage of two dozen or so pilots of a like number of Sea Harrier Vertical and Short Take-off and Landing jet carrier-borne single-seater fighter, reconnaissance, strike aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.
I have written elsewhere (‘A Plea for Maritime History’, The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 79, no. 2, May 1993, p. 221) of the catastrophic consequences to this nation of historians writing about sea warfare – when they did, which was rarely in former times – as though it were a purely naval, not a maritime activity. I see the attraction, it is relatively easy, not complex as maritime activities in reality are, naval, military, and commercial, aerial and technological, economic and political. Therefore, with rare exceptions, purely naval history misleads, if what has been said to me by a scientist is as true as it is succinct,
“History is the Past, speaking to the Present, for the Future.”
A Scientific Study
Writing as a former professional fighting seaman, airman and Naval Staff officer, what the Battle of the Atlantic needs now is not ‘a great epic poet’, comparable to the Trojan Wars, as John Winton pleads: a narrator presumably “to keep old men from the chimney comer, and children from play.” From the published erroneous beliefs entertained, and propagated widely by a large number of present day fighting seamen and airmen, born since that epic battle, and now in positions of maritime power and influence, it is manifest to me professionally that something far different is now urgently needed. This is a brief historical study of the Battle embodying a scientific, basically numerical analysis of the operational facts and figures (because these are objective, and impartial), with appreciations of the relevant operational situations, and solutions, elucidating their operational significance then, and relevance for the future in the light of probable technological, and political developments.
Such a history should be written in lucid language elegant enough to attract a variety of readers, and brief enough for the operational significance of the facts presented to be “chewed and digested,” to use a pertinent phrase of Bacon’s, and then borne in mind for use in the future – by busy Staff officers, and, hopefully, reflective Admirals and Air Marshals, before they are retired; for to be forewarned wisely is to be fore armed realistically. “But the wisdom of the learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure,” which, so far as their paymasters in the Treasury are concerned, is anathema.
Nevertheless, what Descartes said, in 1619, “Je pense, donc je suis!” is true, a discovery which Jacob, “a dweller in tents” had made a couple of millennia before; a fact of life that his twin elder brother Esau, “a cunning hunter, a man of the field,” found in due time to his cost, it will be recalled. Yet time for those in executive authority in which to think at leisure with a mind uncluttered with daily chores is rarely if ever deemed cost effective by Treasury accountants. Hence the importance of informed civilian views of national sea affairs; we are still islanders, one channel tunnel does not make us continentals.
But to return to the Battle of the Atlantic, and to the history of it still needed, a need of which I write advisedly. I can state this because, on the (confidential!) publication of The Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping, 1939-1945, in 1956, within the Service, the Director of one Naval Staff Division sent for me and said, “You have made it plain that it was the convoy system that defeated the enemy, but you have not explained why! Why did it? I want that explained!”
Of course he was right, and I am glad to be able to say also that he became a distinguished Admiral. But it also took time, much time, and much uncluttered thought; time which it was certain that he, like others in authority, did not have.
Having the requisite ‘leisure’, I therefore set out to solve this fundamental operational problem, the key to which I had long since recognised, it will be recalled, as mathematical, although I am not by aptitude a mathematician. Throughout my years in the Historical Section I was blessed by Heads of Department who left me alone to think and, with Freddy Barley’s scrupulously exact and pertinacious mind, to research, to summarise, delineate, plot (I am a ‘graphs man’), ruminate upon, and gestate into succinct, meaningful results.
Being housed in the same building as the Department of Naval Operational Research – how wise an arrangement for the Naval Staff – I now consulted a neighbouring physicist colleague in that Department, Dr W. E. Dawson, and promptly received the requisite mathematical expertise that I lacked, viz., the means to enable me to set about the task of explaining scientifically why “the convoy system defeated the enemy attack upon shipping.” But that, too, is another story of serendipity… Suffice it to say that it took time, and much contemplative thought.
These results I published a few years later, after I had left the Admiralty, and when I considered it prudent, in this journal, as ‘The Science of Admiralty’. Many years later, greatly compressed in content, and incorporating later research, I published the essence of my historical operational researches in an academic scientific journal, (‘Seamen, Scientists, Historians, and Strategy’ The British Journal of the History of Science, vol. 13, no. 45, 1980, 189-210; reprinted in the NR, vol. 72, July and October, 1984, nos. 3 & 4, p. 193-202, 313-320). I published it in an academic journal in order to propagate more widely, in few words the fundamental numerical operational laws that answered, by and large, the Staff Captain’s perceptive question. These laws I had evolved over the years mostly with the help, direct and indirect (which I duly acknowledged), of various civilian scientists, some concerned with operational research.
My aim in synthesising, summarising, and supplementing ‘The Science of Admiralty’, and then publishing the mathematical operational laws was practical. It was to record accessibly those operational laws which, whether applied knowingly with forethought or by chance, had won both the First and the Second (and earlier, 16th to early 19th centuries) Battles of the Atlantic. In this way, I had decided, they should become generally known at least to an educated, and potentially influential laity. I knew this to be necessary as, before I left the Admiralty, I had heard a distinguished scientist assert confidently, in the course of a BBC Reith Lecture, that “the once disputed advantages of large convoys is now common knowledge.” Whereas I knew that his confident assertion was contrary to fact.
I knew that, at that very time, the subject of convoy size was, once again – as during the two Battles of the Atlantic – under dispute within the walls of Whitehall.
Wartime Operational Research
Which brings me back to the question of why – and how – a civilian scientist succeeded in the Second Battle of the Atlantic to initiate Naval Operational Research when another had failed in the First, and to consideration of some of the resultant intellectual operational achievements with practical results. It was Professor P. M. S. Blackett, FRS, who, having succeeded in establishing naval operational research (why and how is another story), together with his team of brilliant fellow mathematicians, found out belatedly, as he confessed, what was in effect the operational master key to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic – convoy, convoy numbers, and convoy size (number of ships in a convoy).
However, it is a sobering thought that what Blackett and his chosen team of brilliant civilian scientists proved, early in 1943, with great labour mathematically, was common operational knowledge to English (and Dutch) naval commanders in the 17th century, through to the early 19th. Moreover, it was not just known to them; in time of – often before – war and, if necessary, in ‘peacetime’ troublous seas they put their knowledge into practice, instituting convoys and, whenever practicable, large convoys. What is more, by so doing they achieved (with great economy of effort) their aim: “security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions,” as an unknown cleric phrased it, memorably, in the ‘Forms of prayer to be used at sea… daily’, in The Book of Common Prayer of 1662.
I should interpolate here that, owing to a combination of circumstances adverse to maritime historical research, to wit, the secrecy which then shrouded wartime naval operational research, and the abstruseness of the Admiralty operational records system, which Freddy Barley and I decided dated back to the time of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, neither of us had any knowledge of the operational wartime studies of Professor Blackett, nor of his teams’, until we had completed the writing of our Naval Staff history of the Battle of the Atlantic.
We were, however, made cognizant, just as we had completed the history, of the essential facts of Ultra relating to the Battle. These, we were able to confirm, in no way affected the verity of what we had already written. Indeed, it was very fortunate that we were ignorant up to that time of Ultra; knowledge of Ultra would have tainted the objectivity of our thinking, and of our researches, and of our conclusions.
Nevertheless, working quite independently as historians without ‘inside’ operational knowledge, Freddy Barley and I had come to the same broad conclusion as had the scientists, but they in more mathematical detail. We had also isolated, and identified, a number of operational facts and figures the significance of which, with the necessary assistance I was later able to express mathematically as further important operational laws. These related to operational aspects not dealt with by the wartime civilian operational research scientists, and evidently never referred to them by the Naval Staff for investigation, although they related principally to the always critical problem in the Battle of the Atlantic of what we identified as ‘U-boat killing’. I mention this because, as wartime head of operational research in both Coastal Command, Royal Air Force, and the Admiralty, Blackett set on record that:
“The really vital problems were found by the operational research groups themselves, rather than given to them to solve by the Service operational staffs.” (P. M. S. Blackett, ‘Operational research: recollections of problems studied, 1940- 1945’, Brassey’s Annual, the armed forces year book, 1953, London, 1953, 106).
The Historians’ Contribution
This statement of wartime operational research experience illustrates the practical value in time of war, and no less in peace, of an operational staff having a Historical Section, staffed by seamen and airmen competent to, and with the available time to identify, abstract, compile, organise, and analyse pertinent operational numerical facts and data, and present the results for the information and use of the directing staff. The historians should, of course, work hand in glove with the operational research scientists, as well as with the operational directing staffs. This is one of the constructive operational lessons to come out of study of the Battle of the Atlantic. I will exemplify.
In the course of my initial study of the U-boat and antisubmarine campaign of the First World War, I made a curious operational discovery. It concerned losses of ships in convoy. It was one which I felt was significant operationally, but one which, despite much associated research, I found inexplicable. I was using numerical data printed in 1918 which, like Appleyard’s studies, had apparently been housed ever since in the basement of the Old Admiralty Building, where I then worked, and where, I later understood, Blackett and his team had worked from 1942 to 1945, close also to the Trade Division during the Battle of the Atlantic. I discovered that, in 1918, the loss rate of through Mediterranean convoys (oceangoing ships sailed between England and Egypt) was precisely double that of Atlantic Ocean convoys (sailed between England and America).
These figures worried me because they ran counter to my belief that, once in convoy, ships were equally at risk, or safe, wherever they sailed. Puzzled, I put aside the laboriously assembled, and analysed data. But I kept the figures in mind, where I turned them over, from time to time, in search of the explanation.
Several years later I came into the room in which Freddy Barley and I worked – its walls adorned with graphs, plans, charts, tables, of the First and Second Battles of the Atlantic derived from operational numerical data. This adornment I had created in order to make it possible to see, and to perceive, sometimes suddenly, the connections between diverse operational facts and figures, and so their operational significance. Freddy was talking to Dr Dawson, whom I had only recently run to ground in the same building. Something said prompted me to unburden my unsolved problem to Dawson. “Oh!”, he exclaimed, “that is easily explained. The loss rate of ships in convoy varies inversely as the size of the convoy, size being expressed as numbers of ships in convoy.” “Eureka!” I cried, “I’ve got it, you’ve given it to me!” Adding, more soberly, “I think.”
I had never thought of finding out the average size of the ‘Mediterranean’, and of the ‘Ocean’ convoys! I had tabulated the necessary data long since. Retrieving the files, a few minutes’ work on the manual calculating machine produced the answers – Atlantic convoys averaged 15 ships, exactly twice the average size of the ‘Mediterranean’ convoys’ 7.5 ships! Dawson’s ‘law’ was verified. It was, it will be recalled, the master key to victory in the Second Battle of the Atlantic. A ‘law’ well known empirically to our forebears of the Age of Sail (K. R. & A. I., 1731 (1st edition), ‘Of Convoys’, Article VIII, ‘Rules for different convoys to keep together’).
This was the law that one of Blackett’s research groups had laboured over so long to elucidate, using the complicated pack-attacked Atlantic convoy battle records of 1941 and 1942 to establish the number of ships a U-boat on average sank during a successful attack. This proved to be one.
But, in 1918, when U-boats had attacked convoys they had done so singly and, when successful had, on average, sunk one ship only per attack. Had Blackett, or any of his groups, known of the convoy records of 1918 lying in the basement below them the law of convoy size would have been established in a matter of hours! And early in 1942, not 1943!
Relative Efficiency of Operations
An aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic not examined by the naval, nor by the air operational research scientists, nor their successors, was the relative efficiency of different A/S operations in the task of U-boat killing (destroying U-boats). Clearly, it was never referred to them by the operational staffs. Nor can it have been known to a succession of SACLANTs, and other NATO Maritime Commanders. I say this because their published sanguine expectations of the operational results of their much-vaunted ‘Forward Strategy’ ran (and run) absolutely counter to the results actually achieved in wars in the past – ‘Forward Strategy’ being a modern euphemism for ‘Blockade’ (but it sounds more sonorous, and aggressive). This was a further cause of my restless nights during the Cold War… Should it ever have become Hot…
The relative efficiency of operations at sea can be measured; for example, operations by aircraft can be measured and compared in terms of operational hours flown per U-boat sunk by aircraft employed, respectively, as escorts to convoys, in support of convoys, and hunting U-boats on passage between their operational areas and their bases. The relative cost effectiveness, to use the current accountancy jargon, of various operations can be measured in terms also of ‘aircraft expended (destroyed) per U-boat sunk’. As the object of the U-boats – the justification for their existence – is to sink ships, I find it unsurprising that the quantitative evidence of copious wartime statistics worldwide is that U-boat killing is done most efficiently (economically) by convoy escort forces, measured both in terms of hours flown/kill, and in terms of aircraft lost/kill.
Next in efficiency as U-boat killers, measured in the same terms of operational effort, were forces used in convoy support; least efficient, by large factors, were forces hunting U-boats! This last, least efficient way of killing submarines is, it will be recalled, the way in which successive SACLANTS have planned to employ their A/S forces! Truly did the Preacher declare:
“All is vanity… One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh… the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be… and there is no new thing under the sun.”
Clearly, what is also important for students of the Battle of the Atlantic in search of guidance into the future is its intellectual history. This is at least as important as its technological history. Indeed, the evidence is that it is more important, being related intimately to the methodology of war.
In studying the progress of a war the history of influential personalities involved is illuminating, and often cautionary, for personalities did, and can influence operational affairs disastrously, as well as beneficially – policy, conduct, and outcome of maritime operations. Thoughts, not instincts, accurate calculations, not mis-calculations should govern operational actions. Their conduct should be rational, not emotional. While this may seem obvious it is a matter which involves the delicate question of the relationship between the authority of knowledge, and the authority of rank. Which reflection brings me back to the inter-war period, 1919-1939, the intermission period in the 20th century drama of wars worldwide.
Let us be quite clear about the attitude of the three Fighting Services to civilians during this period. The Fighting Services did not like civilians meddling – as they saw it – in their strictly professional business of preparing for, still less of conducting war. It has been put authoritatively by an eminent and very experienced civilian scientist deeply involved for years on ‘defence’ projects, Sir Henry Tizard. He stated in 1955:
“It was not until a short time before the Second World War started that scientists began to exercise an influence on the tactical use of weapons and later strategy… the very idea that they should interfere in such matters was repugnant to senior officers twenty years ago .” (P. M. S. Blackett, Studies of War, Edinburgh (1962), (113), quoting Sir Henry Tizard).
What first cracked the hard shell of their exclusiveness was the problem of intercepting and destroying, if it were hostile, the all-intrusive aeroplane before it could do any damage. The five-man Tizard Committee was set up to solve this problem, which was becoming increasingly urgent in the face of the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It first met in January 1935. Blackett was a member. It helped to transform Britain’s air defences between 1935, and the outbreak of war. Radar, to whose development it gave the highest priority, was first demonstrated to it in July 1935, and was to revolutionise warfare technologically.
In 1912, Mr Winston Churchill’s newly formed Naval War Staff included a Historical Section in order that the Staff could indeed be, as he intended “the means of sifting, developing, and applying the results of history and experience, and of preserving them as a general stock of reasoned opinion available as an aid and a guide for all who are called upon to determine, in peace or war, the naval policy of the country…” as he explained in the Navy Estimates of 1912.
Shut down in 1914, on the outbreak of war, the Historical Section was re-established after the war in order to write Staff Histories for guidance in the future. However, it was shut down by the Treasury in 1925 as a waste of public money, but sustained for some months by the First Sea Lord, Lord Beatty, who paid the staff out of his private purse until, on his insistence, they were re-instated. Alas, the Treasury had the last word. Two officers only were eventually retained. Overwhelmed by a flow of petty enquiries, essentially ‘Public Relations’, the writing of the Staff Histories of naval operations after 1916 (the year reached) was abandoned. The Treasury policy of ‘penny wise pound foolish’ over the study of the history of war at sea was to prove incalculably costly when war came less than a score of years later…
A Staff History of the U-Boat operations in 1917-1918, during the First World War would have recorded, and would have revealed what was soon forgotten, if ever appreciated, by Naval and Air Staffs alike, such as,
That, in 1918, U-boats were operating against shipping increasingly not submerged by day but on the surface, at night…!
That, in 1918, U-boats had operated right across the North Atlantic, thousands of miles distant off the East coast of America…
That, in 1917 and 1918, ships in convoys with air A/S escort (provided then at long range by airships) were virtually immune to U-boat attack…
That, in 1917, a Rescue Ship sailed as part of the first Ocean convoy…
As it was, in the absence of any Staff history bringing these stratagems to light and to the fore professionally, by 1935 the Admiralty was confident that Asdic (Sonar), effective against submerged U-boats only, and at less than one mile distant, had “virtually extinguished the submarine menace”! In the event, it took a year of ever mounting shipping losses from September 1939, before the Admiralty and Air Ministry appreciated the that U-boats were operating chiefly at night and, therefore, surfaced!
That what air and surface A/S escorts needed… urgently… and had needed since the start of the war (as the sinking of SS Athenia should have warned, and a Staff History years before that) was Radar!
That fuel dictated the mobility of convoy A/S escorts…
That long-legged convoy A/S surface escorts and/or re-fuelling at sea, dictated tactical as well as strategic A/S mobility, and,
That Very Long Range shore-based and ship-borne convoy air escorts, were likewise indispensably necessary for the country to survive an oceanic war… For, as in 1917 and 1918, in the face of surface and air convoy escorts U-boats dived, did not sink ships in convoy, and, when they dived, lost their mobility…
That then U-boats did indeed become vulnerable to detection by Asdic… “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”!
Thus, in the Falklands War, Nelson’s agonised cry that, “were he to die, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found engraved upon his heart”, must have echoed throughout the Task Force. For the politically dictated ‘Want’ of the modern equivalent of Nelson’s ‘Frigates’ – Shipborne Airborne Early Warning Radar Aircraft – was the root cause of the adversities that befell the Force: the destruction of ships, loss of life and limb, amongst sailors and soldiers, afloat and on shore; indeed, it placed in jeopardy the outcome of the whole campaign.