“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan



Oceanic naval history, with the usual in-depth Keegan look at a few case studies.

First, Trafalgar. British strategy during the Napoleonic era was to maintain a strong presence in the Mediterranean, specifically so that France would also have to split its own forces to defend the SE coast. Nelson was slightly outnumbered when a combined French/Spanish force left the Mediterranean to support a pending invasion of the British Isles. Nelson gambled on superior British gunnery and surprised the enemy with basically a point-blank rough and tumble fight. His great realization was that the typical battles of the day, with each line of ships firing volleys across long distances, didn’t really work. The only way to produce a decisive battle was to close up and really get in their face, with Marine sharpshooters and boarding parties.  The ships themselves were more or less unsinkable by cannon, unless a powder room was hit. He understood that effective Naval warfare was necessarily a man-killing business.  Nelson’s ships started upwind, then “crossed the T” of the French-Spanish line, risking the initial broadsides to their unprotected bow, but the poorly trained gunners missed.  Once Nelson was in the midst of the enemy, the situation was reversed, with British broadsides pointed to the French bow and aft.

I don’t have much to comment about Jutland. Now weaponry really was of the ship-killing variety. The battle seemed really confused … well, I guess Trafalgar was too but that was kind of by design.

At Midway, the U.S. really had some incredible luck. The morning was not going well — several U.S. attack waves were dashed on the Japanese carrier defenses. Then, yet another wave managed to catch two carriers right before they were sending off an attack of their own. Their fighter cover had been temporarily landed and was refueling when the U.S. dive bombers struck, unopposed. Four Japanese carriers were sunk, at a cost of the Yorktown. Truly a turning point in the Pacific War. Amazing how naval warfare can be so governed by chance… it really is just about probabilities, and “calculated risk.”

Finally the Battle of the Atlantic, of course not a single battle but rather the drawn out U-boat campaign to cut off British shipping. The Germans had tried the same thing during WWI, where 378 U-boats has sunk 5708 ships, 1/4 of global tonnage at the start of the war. But, increased wartime building meant that total tonnage in 1918 actually exceeded that of 1914. The campaign was thus a failure. The second time around, Donitz came up with the wolf-pack strategy to counter the Allies convoys. The logic of convoys was simple and probabilistic. The hard part about submarine warfare was finding a ship to torpedo. If all the Allied ships go on their own, then there are far more targets for subs to find than if they joined together to form a single (large) target. Even if a lone sub found the convoy, it still wasn’t likely to torpedo more than one vessel, as the escorts would quickly move in and drive off the sub. The wolf-pack idea was to coordinate the submarines actions and hit the convoys from multiple angles at different times, so the convoy was pretty much under attack during much of the voyage, at least during the portion when it was in the “air gap” with no land-based air coverage.  The intermittent attacks, every few hours over several days, must have been terrifying and incredibly wearing for the merchant marine.

Keegan ends with his opinion on the undisputed king of future naval warfare: submarines.  Even the mighty aircraft carrier plays seconds fiddle.  Carriers are the undisputed masters of the surface; but they are exposed to many threats, including to submarines. Keegan predicts a multiplicity of submarine types to follow the pattern of specialization which occurred with ironclad surface ships. It makes me wonder what’s going on in the secret drawing rooms of naval strategy now.  Unmanned technology has progressed quietly undersea just as it has in the air… I could see large swarms of automated, unmanned subs (each one basically a “smart” long-range torpedo) doing some incredible devastation to a convoy. Like, sinking all the ships at once.  The twice-failed German strategy may succeed on try #3, for some navy, somewhere.


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