AMERICAN and British views on sea warfare are so similar that naval students in the two countries will agree on many conclusions about the opening phases of the present campaign. They will agree, for example, that the present naval war is not likely to provide a major fleet action on the scale of Jutland. The German Navy's strength in capital ships at the outbreak of war was much too low to permit it to challenge the British fleet. Against the fourteen British capital ships in existence -- though not all concentrated in the North Sea, as the Grand Fleet was in 1914 -- Germany could oppose only the two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Her two new battleships of the 35,000-ton Bismarck class will probably not come into service for many months; nor is it conceivable that even after all four of the new German capital ships have been completed twelve to fifteen months hence they will give battle to the British Main Fleet.

German naval strategy clearly must fall back on the old idea of a raiding war, a constant campaign of pinpricks in which the central objective is to destroy the enemy's commerce. One need not have been clairvoyant to foretell this at any time after 1935, when the Nazis put Admiral Erich Raeder at the head of the German Admiralty and told him to rebuild a navy that would revive the glories of the Kaiser's fleet. For Admiral Raeder was by no means a dark horse. His record in the last war as a Staff Officer with Hipper in the German Battle Cruiser Force was well known. Moreover, after that war he produced two important volumes on "Cruiser Warfare" in which he clearly laid down the lines along which a small force should wage naval warfare against a first-class Power. The plans which he outlined in those volumes he has followed in rebuilding the German Navy and, since last September, in employing it against the Allies. He advocated a cruiser war in which as many enemy naval vessels as possible would be tied up by a constant search for individual German commerce destroyers dispersed far and wide over the seas. He advocated the unrelenting destruction of the enemy's sea-borne commerce by every conceivable means. He advocated attacking the individual warships which were pursuing the raiders -- whenever the warships were less powerful. And he advocated the Blitzkrieg, the infliction of instant and overwhelming damage at the very outset of hostilities.

It is clear, as indeed the Admiral's private conversations in Berlin long ago indicated, that his strategic ideas were strongly influenced by Mahan's "Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812." The great damage done in that war to Britain's sea-borne trade by the small but efficient American Navy and by the well-handled privateers under the Stars and Stripes, impressed itself on Raeder's imagination. He saw what had been the effect on British public opinion, in the War of 1812, of the constant loss of merchant ships -- a total of 500 captures in seven months -- and he expected a small but efficiently trained German Navy to achieve a similar result by substituting U-boats for privateers.

This, then, was the basis of his policy. And the British Admiralty would have been blind had it failed to see what was bound to happen once war broke out.

The war came -- and what happened?

A number of U-boats were already at large in the Atlantic along the routes usually followed by British merchant shipping in times of peace. To this extent Raeder's plans had worked. But there were no German cruisers at sea. In 1914 the light cruisers Emden, Karlsruhe, Leipzig, Dresden and Nürnberg, in addition to the famous Far Eastern Squadron of von Spee headed by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were all at sea destroying Allied commerce. In 1939 the only German surface warship outside the Bight of Helgoland when the war began was the Admiral Graf Spee. Nor was Germany able to fill this gap in her offensive plans by setting converted merchantmen to prey on the trade routes. That part of Raeder's strategy broke down completely. There was no Blitzkrieg on the surface of the sea.

What of the underwater campaign?

In the first week of the war eleven British merchantmen were sunk; in the second week, sixteen; in the third, seven -- an average of eleven a week. To attain the 1812 figures of 500 in seven months, the average would have had to be eighteen a week. The pressure was obviously below the standard set by the program. Even in tonnage this fell far below the achievements of the U-boats of 1916. Raeder's flotillas, in spite of the opportunities for catching British merchant ships still on their peacetime routes and in peacetime routine, could sink only 156,000 tons of British shipping in the first month of the war, whereas the Kaiser's flotillas sank 545,000 tons in the month of April 1917. This was a resounding failure for the German Navy.

We do not yet know how many U-boats were dispatched to the Atlantic in the first "wave" of the attack. The total number of German ocean-going submarines at that time may be put at approximately 40. Normal submarine practice is to have one third of the flotillas at sea, one third resting or starting out again, and one third in reserve for overhaul and refitting. There would therefore have been at least twelve or fourteen U-boats engaged in the first onslaught on British shipping. On September 20, the British Prime Minister broke the silence which had been imposed by the Admiralty on news about U-boat sinkings by announcing in Parliament that it was probably an underestimate to state that the German losses already amounted to at least six or seven boats. Naval students realized at once the dramatic significance of that disclosure, for it meant that something like 50 percent of the attacking force had been wiped out. The opening three weeks of the new war had shown a better result than the best four-weekly average hitherto known.

Sinkings at such a rate must outdistance any possible rate of replacement. The best that German yards could hope to do was to produce boats at the rate of seven a month. It was not unreasonable to conclude therefore that the U-boat menace was held. It was not mastered, but it was in check. No paralyzing losses of tonnage were to be expected from that source.

These facts were certainly appreciated in the Navy Ministry at Berlin, and there was a hurried change of plans. A second "wave" of U-boats that was to have operated along the Atlantic sea lanes was diverted to an attack on the neutrals' trade with Britain. Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch shipowners and seamen were to be frightened away from British ports by a campaign of seizure and sinking. U-boats and small surface craft attacked vigorously in the confined waters of the Kattegat and in the channels leading to the Baltic, where the British anti-submarine flotillas could not operate practicably. The weekly rate of sinkings of neutral ships by U-boats rose from 11,800 tons to 15,650 tons, and then to 19,600 tons. Scores of ships leaving or entering the Baltic were seized and taken to German ports for treatment under prize law. Yet the neutrals continued to trade. To and fro across the North Sea they plied, bearing the markings of their nationality for all to see, and fully lighted at night as though daring the U-boats to attack them. Many of them were chartered by British interests; others continued to work for their owners. That campaign, too, failed of its intended effect.

Meantime German merchant shipping was laid up all over the world in neutral harbors, and none of the expected merchant cruisers made an appearance on the trade routes. Beyond the U-boats' radius of action British sea-borne commerce moved without any hindrance. Admiral Raeder then played another card. He used the so-called "pocket battleships" -- which in reality are armored cruisers of exceptional gun power. The Admiral Graf Spee operated in the South Atlantic, while the Deutschland stayed in the North Atlantic.

This may be counted as a setback for the British blockading squadrons stationed between the Orkneys and Iceland. To elude these squadrons is not, however, a superhuman task. More than 600 merchant ships did it in the last war; three commerce raiders slipped away undetected, to prey on Allied trade and two got back home after long cruises. But the success of the Graf Spee and the Deutschland in making their way to the open ocean was not followed by any such spectacular onslaught on shipping as had been expected from ships of their class. The Graf Spee caught a small steamer, the Clement, off Pernambuco on September 30. She caught four more ships during October off the West African coast, and then, after a brief incursion into the Indian Ocean, she had a blank month before capturing three more ships in the South Atlantic and coming to an inglorious end at Montevideo. In all she sank 50,139 tons, which compares poorly with the 72,805 tons sunk by the Karlsruhe or the 70,360 tons sunk by the Emden in 1914. The Deutschland's cruise in the North Atlantic was contemptible in its effect on trade. She sank one British steamer, the Stonegate, of 5,044 tons. She captured the American steamer City of Flint, whose subsequent adventures kept the world amused for some weeks; she was detected by the British auxiliary cruiser Rawalpindi (a converted merchantman), which she sank without difficulty due to her heavy armament. And after having been at sea for at least ten weeks she returned in complete secrecy to Germany, where the naval authorities refrained from staging such jubilant demonstrations as had marked the return of the Moewe and the Wolf from their escapades in the last war. Admiral Raeder was not pleased with the Deutschland's showing as a commerce destroyer.

Was the ineffectiveness of the pocket battleships due to German inefficiency or to British countermeasures? The answer is surely to be found in the fact that more than half the German merchantmen which put out from South American and African ports with the intention of joining the raiders as supply ships were picked up by British patrol cruisers within a few days of their emergence, and that several others found it expedient to run again for shelter in a neutral port. The strategic disposition of the British naval forces in those waters by the Naval Staff was brilliantly justified by the results. We now know that in the North Atlantic large and important convoys were constantly on the move during the time that the two pocket battleships were at large, and that the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was moved to Europe while the Deutschland was still within striking distance.

Nor did the concentration of the three cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles on the Graf Spee off Montevideo on December 13 occur by chance. That action has a historic interest perhaps unique in naval annals. Some time must elapse before we can make any detailed professional appraisal of it. Nevertheless, from the moment the first brief cabled reports reached London, it was clear that the British vessels had fought according to an entirely new conception of cruiser tactics. American naval opinion, in adjudging the work of the British Navy in the last war, has been critical of the way many of the British officers handled their cruiser squadrons -- and this criticism has not been without its counterpart in British naval circles. The one man who showed genius in cruiser tactics in that war was the present Admiral Sir William Goodenough; and after the war he was able to exert considerable influence on the thought and training of the next generation of admirals and commodores. Commodore Harwood's tactics at the Battle of La Plata seem from the present incomplete evidence to show that he applied Goodenough's dictum: "Every officer in command of a cruiser squadron should impart to his captains the doctrine of elasticity and decentralization." The story was the same as in the sailing-ship era. The rigid line of battle results only in inconclusive cannonading. Fluidity of movement -- as in Nelson's case at St. Vincent -- both surprises the enemy and forces a conclusive action. Harwood's three cruisers, outgunned and outranged by their opponent, surprised him by the elasticity of their movements, shook him by closing in to their effective range, defying death from his heavier weight of fire, and bewildered his gunnery control by pouring in their fire from three different directions instead of steaming on line ahead and sending broadsides from approximately the same point. This was a brilliant adaptation to modern material of an idea at least as old as Rodney. We still have many details to hear about the Battle of La Plata, but already its main lesson is clear.

How are we to interpret the scuttling of the Graf Spee? That it could have been dictated by her physical state after the battle seems hardly possible. She had not, apparently, used up anything like her total supply of ammunition. The damage done by the British shells, though severe, had not affected her steaming powers. If her main gunnery control was wrecked, that did not make her incapable of fighting, though it would handicap her against well-found ships. We may therefore conjecture that "moral" reasons dictated this act, of which the ultimate effect on world opinion was totally different from that expected by Berlin. We must remember that ever since June 1919 there has been a determined effort in German naval circles to represent the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow as a great and glorious deed, "ein Ruhmestag" in German naval history. Germany has endeavored to establish a new sea tradition diametrically opposed to that accepted by practically every other seafaring nation. She has sought to surround scuttling with a glamour, an air of heroic self-sacrifice. The suicide of the Graf Spee was expected to clinch that tradition, to dramatize it into world acceptance. It failed to do so. And Captain Langsdorff must have been aware that it would fail, for though he obeyed orders, he refused to survive the disgrace that he knew must attach to the deed. To his memory seafaring men of every nation will pay sympathetic tribute.

By about the middle of October, when the weekly sinkings of British merchant ships had shrunk to three as against the average of 18 necessary to have an effect on public opinion, the German Admiralty decided that further measures must be taken. We began to find traces of mine fields in the open sea off the east coast of Britain, fields of which no public warning had been given and which in any case should not have been laid by any belligerent on the routes normally used by neutral traffic. But there were not many losses from this cause for about a month. Then on November 18 the storm burst. The Germans began to scatter magnetic mines freely in the narrow channels between the sandbanks in the Thames Estuary, channels used constantly by the ships of all nations. Within a fortnight sixteen neutral and ten British ships were destroyed off the British east coast by this new device. The dramatic effect of the blow was heightened by the employment of seaplanes for laying some of the mines. An air-minded public immediately attached fantastic importance to this new weapon. Actually, the evidence does not support the view that any large section of the Thames Estuary mine field was laid by German aircraft. And a subsequent large-scale mining operation off the Northumbrian coast, intended to catch traffic going to and from the Tyne, was almost certainly not carried out from the air. Submarine mine layers, of about 1,100 tons and carrying 42 to 48 mines each, were far more probably the instruments used. Large though it is, such a load of mines is by no means exceptional for a submarine. The American vessel Argonaut, put into service thirteen years ago, was designed to carry sixty.

The British public has been so consistently fed with propaganda about air power that aviation has taken a wholly disproportionate place in the Englishman's interest. Naval technicians were well aware, three years ago, that the Germans were experimenting with the dropping of mines by seaplane. Indeed, there was a reference to this fact in the German annual Nauticus. But it was also known that the light types of mine with which these experiments were carried out did not withstand the shock of impact when they fell into the water from a height of 60 feet or over. Consequently a heavier type of casing had to be used, with the obvious result that the number which a seaplane could carry was reduced. Even the magnetic mine, which needs no sinker or anchoring cable, is by no means light and the number that can be carried even by a seaplane of the largest type is not more than eight. Moreover, the aërial mine layer must have some light -- twilight or moonlight -- by which to work. The magnetic mine must be placed in channels actually navigated and of no great depth if it is to be effective. Haphazard scattering from the air over the sandbanked waters of the Thames Estuary, for example, would result in a large number of mines falling on shoal patches over which no vessel ever moves. But if the seaplane, in order to find the channels it wants to mine, operates in the light and over waters that are frequented, it is almost certain to be sighted, and the position of its field will be detected. The submarine is under no such handicap. It may be detected by British listening gear, it is true, but it can bide its time, resting on the bottom until the hunting craft have moved elsewhere.

Nor are magnetic mines any surprise. The British Navy had more than one variety in use in the last war. Numbers of them were employed in the Northern Barrage between the Orkneys and Norwegian territorial waters. An American type was also used in that barrage, devised by Mr. Ralph C. Browne of Salem, Massachusetts, and perfected by him in conjunction with the Bureau of Ordnance. And naturally, ever since the magnetic mine has been in existence all navies have evolved antidotes. Unfortunately, the combinations and permutations in types of mines are almost infinite, and the antidote for one type of magnetic mine would be useless against others. Therefore, until some specimens of the mine in use had been dissected by experts, it was obviously futile to put any one anti-mine device into production. There was inevitably much secrecy about the whole business; but a month after the Germans first used magnetic mines, Mr. Churchill in a review of the war at sea indicated that the mine menace, like the U-boat menace, was checked, and it was subsequently semi-officially admitted that the suitable antidote was in production in large quantities. This point merits a certain amount of emphasis. To the layman every new technical device comes as a dramatic surprise and he does not realize that there is nothing novel about it to the technician. In many cases research work has for years been going on quietly into the very problem which suddenly emerges into public notice. The additional secrecy which war inevitably imposes on news about inventions has kept the world at large from appreciating what remarkable success the British research workers have had in rapidly producing an effective reply to the new German menace.

Nevertheless, we in Britain realize that the mine war is by no means at an end. The German Admiralty may put variations of the magnetic mine into production in order to offset the first British counteraction, and we may see fresh outbursts of wholesale sinkings by this means. We have learned from previous experience that losses in the mercantile marine will fluctuate according to a well-defined rhythm. For the moment naval activity has been held up by the severe winter, though the inevitable losses among small British patrol craft continue.

One of the great surprises of this war, as far as the lay public is concerned, has been the comparative ineffectiveness of air attack against fleets and against convoys of merchantmen. Hairraising forecasts of destruction by bombing at sea were so incessant during the twenty years from 1919 to 1939 that the lay public believed the air arm to have revolutionized warfare completely. The fact of the matter is that an air attack at sea and even in harbors against British naval vessels has produced only a modicum of damage, and the loss to the attacking forces, in both machines and men, has been out of all proportion to the damage done. The following table shows the actual results of aërial warfare against the British Navy:

Date Scene of Attack Forces Engaged British German
Sept. 27 North Sea British warships None 3 planes
20 German planes
Sept. 27 May Island British destroyer None None
1 German plane
Oct. 7 North Sea 2 Br. mine sweepers None None
German aircraft
Oct. 9 North Sea British cruisers None 6 planes
30 German planes
Oct. 16 Firth of Forth British warships 1 hit on cruiser 4 planes
12 German planes 2 near misses
Oct. 17 Scapa Flow British warships 1 near miss 2 planes
14 German planes
Oct. 21 North Sea British convoy None 4 planes
12 German planes
Oct. 22 St. Abb's Head British convoy None 1 plane
2 German bombers
Oct. 30 S. Dogger Bank British destroyers None --
2 German planes
Nov. 20 North Sea British destroyers None None
German aircraft
Nov. 25 North Sea British warships None None
German aircraft
Jan. 1 Off Shetlands British warships None None
German aircraft
Feb. 5 North Sea Mine sweeper Sphinx Direct hits None
German aircraft

The "near miss" explosions were serious in their effects, though in no case did they involve the absence of a fighting ship from her place in the line for more than a week or two.

The British have carried out two or three air raids on German warships at anchor or cruising in Helgoland Bight in which the airmen claim to have made direct hits. In the absence of any information from Germany about the effects of these raids it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions, but the consensus of opinion in British circles is that the damage done cannot have been of vital importance. Air attacks have been delivered against U-boats by British aircraft on a number of occasions, and the British Air Ministry has publicly claimed that enemy craft have been "sunk" in some of these attacks. These claims are neither endorsed nor denied publicly by the Admiralty, but anyone with experience in anti-submarine warfare knows how deceptive can be evidence concerning the "sinking" of a U-boat. Even in cases where survivors have been picked up, it has been subsequently found that the vessel was not destroyed but had limped home to be repaired and reappear on the hunting grounds. Many months must elapse before we can test the accuracy of the airmen's claims to have destroyed U-boats with bombs.

The German Air Force, having failed to achieve the bloodcurdling results against the British fleet promised by Field Marshal Göring, turned to another form of attack. Noncombatant fishermen in their trawlers were bombed and machine-gunned under the pretext that they were "patrol vessels." Neutral steamers not in convoy and therefore entirely without an "offensive" character met the same fate. As I write, the worst feature of the war at sea is the continual air attacks on mercantile shipping: in the first week of February alone, some five ships were sunk in this manner and about one hundred noncombatants killed. Even a Trinity House tender carrying crews to the lightships in the North Sea -- which incidentally are useful navigation marks for U-boats working after dark -- was savagely attacked by aircraft and machine-gunned for half an hour, killing and wounding 32 inoffensive men. This, however, can hardly be called aërial warfare. It is gangsterdom and does not enter into any serious technical discussion of the developments of the war at sea.

Thus far we have dealt mainly with the German side of the operations and the balance sheet shows a considerable sum to Britain's credit. What of her losses?

It is scarcely necessary to say that the exaggerated German claims about the number of British warships sunk are now universally discredited. The British Admiralty has announced the sinking of the aircraft-carrier Courageous and of the battleship Royal Oak; the destruction of the Rawalpindi; the torpedoing or the blowing up on mines of the destroyers Jersey, Blanche, Gipsy, Grenville, Exmouth and Daring and of a number of smaller craft such as submarines and trawler-mine sweepers. Beyond those losses there have been no sinkings of British naval units. There has been damage by enemy action -- the cruiser Belfast, the battleships Nelson and Barham, and the three cruisers that fought the Graf Spee are examples -- and there has been the inevitable damage by stress of weather and by collision while navigating without lights. But broadly speaking the active strength of the British Navy is unimpaired; and as all naval students are aware, there were 105 new vessels of all classes approaching completion when the war began and another 68 on order. Since September the First Lord of the Admiralty has more than once referred publicly to wartime additions to the building program, notably in his statement that in a few months the submarine-hunting flotillas would be tripled in strength.

The worst blow that has fallen on the British Navy during the war was the torpedoing of the battleship Royal Oak inside the anchorage at Scapa Flow. The seriousness of this was not so much the military value of the ship, nor even the ghastly price in human life. It was the disclosure of a bad blunder in staff work -- the failure, twelve months earlier, to complete the blocking of all the subsidiary approaches to the roadstead at Scapa Flow. This was exactly on a par with the heedlessness of a householder who bolts and doublelocks his front door but leaves a window wide open for the convenience of the burglar. That the Naval Staff could have been guilty of so elementary a blunder came as a great shock to opinion in Britain, and although public comment, under the stress of war, was guarded and restrained, the nation chalked up a definitely black mark against Admiralty.

But when we compare the strategic dispositions of the Navy and the results they gave during 1939 with the corresponding period of 1914 it is clear that the British Naval Staff's understanding of the problems to be solved has been far better in this war than it was at the outset of the other, and that the hard, ungrudging work of the men at sea has been far better directed and far more skilfully used now than then. The present war has, in its opening stages, been almost wholly a sea war. And the balance sheet shows a strong credit to the account of the British Navy.

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  • HECTOR C. BYWATER, Naval Correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph; author of "The Great Pacific War," "A Searchlight on the Navy" and other works
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