Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves
When your country is an island, it is only natural that you would come to rely on the ocean for commerce with others. When that island is vulnerable to attacks form others, it is even more natural that the ocean would serve as a means for your defense. To achieve both, you need ships and men who sail on them. England is such an island and from the 16th century through the 20th century, she relied primarily on the Royal Navy to make sure that her freedom was protected. As the world careened out of control towards World War 1 in 1914, the Royal Navy was second to none in the world.
As the storm clouds gathered, the warring nations took stock of the weapons in their arsenal. On the naval side, huge dreadnaughts (the precursors to battleships), armored cruisers, destroyers and auxiliaries of every type filled the anchorages surrounding the tiny island nation. Guns as large as 15 inches bristled on the monster ships and threatened to send everything in front of them to the bottom of the ocean.
The Germans had spent much of their time leading up to the war trying to build a fleet that would allow them to join the big gun club. They also saw England as a natural threat to their desire for dominance and growth. Empires around the world were the goal and growing your empire required freedom of the seas to prosecute your goals and maintain the trade that would add money and power to the nation’s interests. The Germans had less effective weapons for their main guns but relied heavily on technology and innovation to overcome their perceived weakness. Their surface vessels had better optical and range finding capability and were easier to handle than Royal Navy fleets. But their secret weapon was their submarine fleet. Even with the exaggerations of the German Fleet Commanders, the technological differences in their submarine fleet made it a potent weapon that could interdict trade in all of the main sea lanes.
On both sides of the conflict, submarine technology advanced quickly leading up to the War and all through it. Diesel and electrical systems adapted and changed to meet the realities of the type of warfare that evolved. At the beginning of the war, the Germans followed the rule of “Prize Rules” which allowed the crews of their target ships to escape before the ships would be sunk by either torpedoes or gunfire. The later introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare destroyed any illusion of chivalry however and cast a dark shadow on submarine warfare in an age that had not quite adjusted to war on such a scale.
You fight the war with the weapons you have at hand.
The Royal Navy soon discovered that its assumptions about naval warfare were suitable for a war from the last century but limited in response to the new threats. If you really think about it, the first successful submarines had been developed in 1900 and it did not include the technology to help a submersible sustain itself for long ocean voyages. But the engineers on all continents were quick to develop the systems and weapons to build this new type of weapon. Improvements came one on top of another and all of this despite the prevailing attitude everywhere: submarines were just a fringe element of naval warfare. Gentlemen would fight in long lines of battle cruisers in the prescribed manner and the enemy would obligingly respond by doing the same.
In the first ten weeks of the war, the vaunted Royal fleet lost five cruisers to the German U boats. This despite the fact that the Germans only had 48 submarines total of which about 30 were functional after the war erupted in August of 1914. Admiral Tirpitz’s vision came quickly to bear fruit even as he sat in disgrace on the sidelines of the war.
The admiralty on the British side was completely invested in traditional naval warfare and weapons. For century’s larger and larger surface forces dominated naval thinking which meant that resources and support went to the surface fleet. The leadership and strategies were all built on the rock solid foundation of how to win a war and dominate the trade routes. Every officer in high command had waited his turn in line to reinforce the notions and concepts that would ensure that Britannia rules the waves forever.
The sad reality of modern warfare is that an enemy that can’t beat you on your own course will figure out technology to even the playing fields. The Germans have always managed to do the unexpected and they developed both the simple and the sublime to balance the scorecard. Mines laid from submarines were only one of those surprises and the combination of regular submarines and these special boats meant the Royal Navy would have to spend an inordinate amount of time protecting its fleets. The air ships that flew over London also created an entirely new threat that the 1914 fleet was woefully unprepared for.
The Zeppelin fleet and limited use of coastal air aero planes introduced a whole new element which would require a rethinking of the arms a ship would need to carry to protect itself. More importantly, the Zeppelins also increased the ability of their Navy to discover where ships were located and mine fields existed. This expansion of technology could not have been imagined no less planned for by traditionalists. While the bombing attacks on Britain were of limited value, their fear added to the concerns of the British public about the weapons of this horrible new war.
The prejudice against alternative views hampered the British in two ways. First, the public’s view of the superiority of the battleships needed to be maintained so that the public would feel safe and secure. Reports from the front rapidly erased the illusions of a quick war. The death reports alone shook the nation to its core. Secondly, service in a professional fleet meant opportunity on the large vessels where glory and promotion reigned supreme.
It was against this background that another type of weapon was employed to gain support from both the public at large and the young men of the Navy who would be called to fill the ranks on both auxiliary ships and the fledgling submarine fleet. That weapon was propaganda from an unexpected source.
Rudyard Kipling was an author who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature just a few short years before the war.
His books and short stories had gained him a special place in literary circles that extended from commoner to royalty. I remember reading The Jungle Book and Gunga Din as a young man and of course have practically memorized his poem about Tommy Adkins. His work appealed to people of all backgrounds and it was only natural that he would be called upon to help and extend the words and feelings needed to motivate a people to war.
In 1916, he used his skills to pen a series of articles about the outliers of the fleet that he called the Fringes of the Fleet. These articles were about the auxiliary units that searched for the mines and hunted the dreaded U boats. They also covered the newest weapon of the Navy and the men who sailed them: submarines.
Kipling decided that the only way he could write about the tiny craft was to actually ride them and get to know the men involved. His writing is remarkable in that he captured the very essence of a submariner. What is remarkable is how little the genre has changed in the hundred years since the words were written.
From the chapter on submarines:
Kipling: “THE CHIEF business of the Trawler fleet is to attend to the traffic. The submarine in her sphere attends to the enemy. Like the destroyer, the submarine has created its own type of officer and man—with a language and traditions apart from the rest of the Service, and yet at heart unchangingly of the Service. Their business is to run monstrous risks from earth, air, and water, in what, to be of any use, must be the coldest of cold blood.
The commander’s is more a one-man job, as the crew’s is more team work, than any other employment afloat. That is why the relations between submarine officers and men are what they are. They play hourly for each other’s lives with Death the Umpire always at their elbow on tiptoe to give them “Out.””
My favorite part of the submarine stories comes from part 2.
Kipling: “I WAS honoured by a glimpse into this veiled life in a boat which was merely practising between trips. Submarines are like cats. They never tell “who they were with last night,” and they sleep as much as they can, If you board a submarine off duty you generally see a perspective of fore-shortened fattish men laid all along. The men say that except at certain times it is rather an easy life, with relaxed regulations about smoking, calculated to make a man put on flesh. One requires well-padded nerves. Many of the men do not appear on deck throughout the whole trip. After all, why should they if they don’t want to? They know that they are responsible in their department for their comrades” lives as their comrades are responsible for theirs. What’s the use of flapping about? Better lay in some magazines and cigarettes.”
I had the feeling that Kipling could see into the future and watch a submarine crew in a more modern era.
If you have time for a really good read, here is a link to all of his stories. It is remarkable how little some things have changed and yet how far we have come in the years since the First World War.
I hope and pray that a new world war never comes to mankind again. I am sure that feeling is shared by many. But as I see nations all over the word continuing to build “defensive” fleets, I can’t help but feel we are marching once again to the next last Great War.