Britain & Germany – War at sea 1914–1918 Pt1 — Peter Stubbs — 11 March 2019

Peter Stubbs is a retired soli­citor who has developed an interest in naval his­tory, he has given 2 talks pre­vi­ously to the Club.  The his­tory of the British Navy during WW1 is a big sub­ject and his talk is in two parts and this report refers to the first sec­tion.

Until the 16th cen­tury war­ships had been essen­tially for trans­port­ing sol­diers for hand to hand fight­ing. Now wooden ships with gun ports and muzzle loaded guns on 3 decks were built and 250 years later in the time of HMS Victory, war­ships had changed little.  95 years later HMS Warrior was launched with iron clad­ding to a timber frame with steam engines but still with 3 masts and muzzle loaded guns.  The British Navy was com­pla­cent and set in its ways.  In 1900 it was like a rich old man, swollen with self-confidence with memor­ies of past glor­ies and little regard for modern trends.  There was much emphasis on smart­ness and little on train­ing.

In 1889 the German Chancellor Bismark stated “I see England as an old and tra­di­tional ally.  No dif­fer­ence exists between England and Germany”.  In England, France was the tra­di­tional enemy.  The Kaiser was very jeal­ous of Britain’s dom­in­ance of the seas and in 1897 he made Tirpitz Secretary of State of the Imperial Navy.  He was a bril­liant admin­is­trator and began to increase the German Navy by 38 battle­ships, 20 armoured cruis­ers and 38 light cruis­ers.  The British Navy at this time had over 900 ships.

In 1904 Admiral John Fisher became 1st Sea Lord.  He recog­nised the threat the new German naval policy rep­res­en­ted and thought that war was inev­it­able.  He removed 150 obsol­ete ships from the fleet and planned for modern replace­ments.  He cham­pioned the devel­op­ment of the sub­mar­ine and inven­ted the concept of the modern des­troyer.  He was the ori­gin­ator of the Dreadnought battle­ship.  No other ship could com­pete with her and Britain built 35 of them.  Seeing the Dreadnought, Germany halted con­struc­tion of its ships and ordered new designs to be built.  The Battleship Race was on.

HMS Dreadnought 1906

The British Navy went to war on 4th August 1914 with 609 fight­ing ships includ­ing 29 Dreadnoughts and battle cruis­ers to Germany’s 17 equi­val­ents.  It soon became clear that sea power must now con­tend with mines, tor­pedoes and sub­mar­ines.

At this time 60% of our food and other com­mod­it­ies were impor­ted.  The object­ive of the German Grand Fleet was to break out from the North Sea and to attack Britain’s mer­chant ship­ping.  The Grand Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe was sta­tioned at Scapa Flow to pre­vent this.  Britain’s block­ade covered the whole of the west­ern approaches and applied to all ships bound for Germany.  This had an ever more dam­aging effect on German pro­duc­tion and living stand­ards.

At this early stage in the war inter-ship com­mu­nic­a­tion was poor.  In the battle of Heligoland Bight it was repor­ted “Our battle cruis­ers were scattered by and made viol­ent attempts to sink a squad­ron of our own sub­mar­ines.  Our light cruis­ers sent in to sup­port were in two cases thought to be enemy ships by our des­troy­ers and in another case two light cruis­ers chased two tor­pedo boats each sup­pos­ing the other to be the enemy.”  Despite all this Commodore Tyrett won the battle and this had a sig­ni­fic­ant effect on future German policy that became more cau­tious.

Peter’s talk covered sev­eral naval battles in the south­ern hemi­sphere includ­ing the Battle of Port Stanley and the sink­ing of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisanau.  The second part of the talk will be more focused on war in the north­ern hemi­sphere.

We eagerly await Peter’s con­clud­ing talk in what is an intriguing insight into our recent his­tory that few of us have much know­ledge of.