Some Strategic Lessons To Be Drawn From The Second World War

Some Strategic Lessons To Be Drawn From The Second World War

29 Apr 23
Message from the Editor

In 1952, during his work on The War At Sea, 1939-1945, official historian Stephen Roskill published in the NR [40/4, p. 432] this appraisal of the Royal Navy’s strategic role in the Second World War, with particular attention to the subject of convoy operations and trade protection. Reprinted here as part of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. A 15 minute read

As the years pass and the immediate stresses and strains of a great war recede from the foreground of our thoughts, it becomes increasingly possible, and desirable, to study the broad, strategic lessons which can be drawn from the conduct of that war. Though we do not yet possess nearly enough of the contemporary records and papers to form full and final conclusions, which must plainly await the publication of the official histories, we already have ample evidence for, at any rate, a preliminary study. Mr. Churchill’s memoirs, the biographical accounts published by many British and Allied Commanders, the despatches of Commanders-in-Chief released by the Service Departments and certain enemy documents which have been translated and published provide the student of war with abundant scope for investigation and analysis.

In this short article it is proposed only to consider certain lessons in Maritime Strategy which may provisionally be drawn from the war of 1939-45. Grand strategy falls outside the scope of this article, and the field where lesser strategy merges into tactics demands fuller information regarding plans, dispositions and movements than, as yet, we possess.

It is almost a platitude to point out the need for such study. Yet one has only to look at the lessons which could have been drawn from the First World War, and see how many of them were forgotten or ignored, to realize that such study does not come easily to the fighting man in time of peace. To give but one example of the dire consequences of failure to study lessons from past wars, Admiral Donitz’s U-boats caught the British defences completely on the wrong foot when, in 1941, they changed from submerged attacks to surface attacks – especially by night. We had planned, studied and exercised anti-U-boat precautions endlessly. Yet all the time our defences were based on the asdic, which was almost useless against a surfaced submarine. What we had forgotten was that, in the later stages of the First War, the great majority of the losses inflicted by U-boats were by surface attacks. Unlike Petrarch who “by sad experience taught, learned at last wisdom’s first rule, to profit from the past,” we seem to have failed, to a considerable extent, to translate the lessons of one generation’s narrow escape into terms of the next generation’s thought and planning.

Our founder, Admiral Richmond, whose work and life were so fully discussed in the last number of this journal [40/3, p. 335] was an outstanding example of a man who could and did study the past. His writings are full of the wisdom derived from his studies. “How,” he wrote between the wars, “could anyone who had really studied, imagine that… a vast number of light craft of all kinds would not be needed in war.”[1] Yet the failure to provide those very craft was apparent from the first day of the Second War.

So much for the need for serious and protracted study and analysis. Now for some suggestions regarding the strategic lessons of the last war. It has come to be widely accepted that maritime power rests on three main Elements. They have been called by various titles but the underlying thought is the same. Here we will call them the Security Element, the Strength Element and the Transport Element. The Security Element comprises the safety of the Fleet’s main bases at home and overseas. If the bases are insecure the Fleet cannot possibly exercise its functions. It becomes homeless and harried and must wander in fear from one ill-protected anchorage to another. This was exactly what happened to the Home Fleet in 1939 and early 1940. Its main base at Scapa was so poorly defended as to be unusable. The pre-war neglect of its defences against air and U-boat attack was directly responsible for the loss of the Royal Oak and indirectly responsible for the Home Fleet flagship, the Nelson, being put out of action for many months by one of the magnetic mines laid by a prescient enemy in the channel leading to the temporary base at Loch Ewe.

Nor was it only in home waters that the consequences of such neglect were reaped. In the Mediterranean the Fleet had to abandon its base at Malta and move to Alexandria, where most of the facilities of a proper base were lacking. It took much “sad experience” to show that Malta could have been properly defended and could have been kept in use as a base. And Gibraltar was in an even worse state in 1939. Finally, on this theme, let anyone who was unlucky enough to be sent to Freetown in the early months of the war tell of the problems which arose through our complete failure to establish any proper base in the South Atlantic command area. It is, indeed, ironic to the point of tragedy that the only base on which substantial sums were spent between the wars should, when the test came, have proved quite indefensible against the only enemy likely to attack it.

The reason for the persistent neglect of the Security Element is not far to seek. Money for Defence is always difficult to procure in times of peace, and money spent on base defences has little to show for its expenditure. Ships and aircraft are easily counted by the public and can be understood by Members of Parliament. But he would be a bold First Lord who, in introducing the Navy Estimates, demanded first priority for booms, anti-submarine nets, controlled minefields, static AA weapons and the like. So much for Security.

The second element, that of Strength, comprises all the instruments of maritime war, without regard to whether they work on the surface of the sea, beneath it, or in the air above it. All must be present in adequate numbers and type to enable the requirements of reconnaissance and shadowing the enemy, of locating and striking him, and of protecting our own forces to be met. The war was but a few days old when the failure of our air reconnaissance of the North Sea was abundantly clear. The type of aircraft available was unsuitable and their numbers were inadequate. Nor could our cruisers and armed merchant cruisers – those lamentably weak substitutes for the cruisers we should have built but hadn’t built – adequately patrol the exits from the North Sea to the Atlantic. The result was that enemy raiders passed to and from their home bases almost without hindrance; or, if they encountered one of our patrols, they probably sank it. It was many months before our air and sea watch over the passages became regular and strong enough to make them dangerous to the enemy. This was a grievous failure on our part and the price exacted was not cheap. The loss of the Glorious, the unheralded attack by the Scheer on the Jervis Bay’s convoy, and by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on dispersed Atlantic convoys in March 1941, could all have been avoided if our reconnaissance of the North Sea and of the passages to the Atlantic had been adequate.

Brief reference has already been made to our need for great numbers of flotilla vessels of all type. Our complete dependence on overseas trade renders this need continuous and inevitable. Yet in the first three years of the war we never approached sufficiency, and there appear to be instances where those that we did possess were improperly used. This brings us naturally to the question of convoying merchant shipping – perhaps the most important of all the varied duties of the flotilla vessels. We know how unwillingly convoy was introduced in the 1914-18 war and we know that the arguments used against it were all proved by experience to be fallacious. What does not seem to have been undertaken in the years between the wars is a complete and scientific analysis and study of the beneficial consequences of convoy – particularly with regard to the losses inflicted by convoy escorts on enemy U-boats. If such a study was made it must have been ignored when the Second War broke out; for the introduction of a complete convoy system (outward as well as homeward) was not rapidly accomplished. It is true that shortage of escorts can be pleaded as one reason for continuing to sail ships independently; but that argument only underlines our deficiency in that particular aspect of the Strength Element of maritime power.

Nor does it ring wholly true as an excuse; for many of the destroyers which we did possess were constantly being used, to the point of exhaustion of men and machinery, to scour the oceans for reported or imagined U-boats during which time much independently-routed shipping was being massacred; and such convoys as were sailing had miserably small escorts, or none at all. Surely the lessons of the First War made clear that not only were our merchant ships best defended by ordering them into convoy, but the enemy was far more likely to be sunk by the warships sent to protect the convoys than by numbers of ships scouring the ocean spaces for an elusive foe. The writer suspects that this strategic error stemmed from a feeling in high places that convoy and escort were wholly ‘defensive’ measures, whereas to hunt for U-boats was to take the ‘offensive’ against them. There could be no greater fallacy; and the lack of study and careful reasoning which it demonstrates cannot be too strongly condemned. Let us at least hope that the strategy of convoy, and in particular its consequences on the enemy in the Second World War, will be fully studied in the present uneasy period of peace.

While on the subject of the proper use of maritime strength in operations for the defence of trade another example of using valuable ships improperly may be given. It must have been obvious from the beginning of the war that our few fleet carriers were very valuable ships. Yet, so strong was the pressure to undertake some sort of ‘offensive’ against the U-boat that some of them were sent out to join the other vain U-boat hunters. The only result achieved was the loss of the Courageous. It provides an excellent example of the wrong strategic use of strength. If we had aircraft carriers in plenty and to spare they could far better have been used, as escort carriers were used later, with the convoys. But their proper function was to provide long-range reconnaissance and striking power for the Fleet, and by such dissipation of strength our main fleets were very soon deprived of any aircraft carriers at all. This, in turn, had its effect on the watch on the northern passages already mentioned. Strength must not only be present in adequate and balanced form; it must be applied correctly.

Lest the reader should think that the writer of this article undervalues the importance of the offensive a brief digression from our subject may be excused. In any war conducted by a democracy against a well-prepared dictatorship it is certain that the democracy must remain on the strategic defensive during the early phases. The reason simply is that the preponderance of strength, and so the strategic initiative, rests with the enemy. There is no harm at all in accepting this inevitable period of the defensive. Indeed a great thinker on maritime strategy holds that it possesses certain inherent advantages.[2] What is essential during this period of the defensive is that no opportunity for a vigorous local and tactical offensive should be lost. Fortunately, our training and traditions are such that there never was any danger that this would happen in 1939-1941 – as the River Plate, Narvik, Matapan and many other actions were quickly to demonstrate. But there is all the difference in the world between these strongly pressed local and tactical offensive strokes and the type of false strategic offensive attempted in our early endeavours to deal with the U-boat.

The use of our maritime strength in 1939-1945 needs, of course, to be discussed at far greater length than is possible in a short article. Here it is only possible to indicate certain lines of thought and to try to stimulate other members to carry the analysis further from their own knowledge, thought and experience.

We must now turn to what has here been called the Transport Element. It comprises not only the ships and vessels which keep the maritime forces supplied (the Fleet Train as the Americans have aptly called it), but also the entire Merchant Navy, and the building and repairing yards which stand behind it and make its existence possible. And in it must also be included all the varied specialized ships and craft needed to enable amphibious operations to be carried out. For it must never be forgotten that maritime power, properly equipped and organized, confers on its possessor the inestimable benefit of using its armies where and when it will. By tradition and training the Royal Marines should be the spearhead of every such venture. Yet, somehow or other, that immense privilege seems, between the wars, to have been allowed to go by default. For in 1939 the Royal Marines were not equipped or trained with that idea to the fore, and it was not until late in the war that they reverted to what may be regarded as their primary function. But it was not only in that specialized aspect of the Transport Element that the war exposed unsuspected weaknesses. The tankers and store ships needed to supply the Fleet were often unsuitable in performance or equipment; the transports to move troops overseas had generally to be improvised, and the loading and unloading of military equipment had (pace what happened in Norway in 1940) hardly been studied at all. Sea transport provides not only the arteries on which the very life of the nation depends, but also a most powerful means whereby the war can be carried by a maritime power into the enemy’s country.

It can, and probably will be argued that most, if not all, of the strategic failures suggested above would not have occurred if only the Governments of the inter-war years had been less parsimonious to the fighting services. There is, it must be admitted, some truth in this; but it cannot be accepted as an all-excusing plea. Probably no more iniquitous subterfuge has ever been inflicted by politicians on an ignorant or unsuspecting public than the ‘Ten Year Rule’ announced in the 1920s. By this rule a war was not to be expected for ten years; and the date of expiry of the ten years of anticipated peace was constantly moved forward. It made any coherent or intelligent planning farcical and reduced all programmes and policies to little more than pious aspirations.

Yet we, the Navy, must accept a share of the responsibility, for even in naval circles there does not seem to have been any vigorous protest against this dangerous political formula. Its, for the most part, tacit acceptance might, indeed, be taken to show how little thought we were at that time giving to the possibility of war, and to the strategy on which we should fight if war came. The consequences of the rule seem never to have been thought out to the bottom. And even if it be admitted that more money, such as a dictator can allocate to his fighting services, eases all strategic problems, and that a democracy in which Treasury control has always been a governing principle cannot possibly enjoy such advantages, there still remains a large and uncomfortable number of questions on which naval opinion was unformed or ill-informed in 1939. As was said at the beginning, the years following on a great war provide the opportunity to analyse the causes of such failures. The writer believes that, in the 1920s the opportunity was, to a great extent let slip. Now is another chance to think, to analyse, to discuss and to plan. It is to stimulate these processes that this article, in which much is admittedly arguable, has been written.


[1] H. W. Richmond, National Policy and Naval Strength (1928)

[2] See J. S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911)