While the navies of the First World War rarely met in large engagements, still they played a crucial role in the course of the war. The naval arms race that developed between Britain and Germany had been a major reason for the outbreak of war in 1914, while the failure of the German Navy to break the British blockade or to enforce a blockade of its own was decisive in the war’s conclusion. The navies of the Great Powers had been transformed substantially by technological developments over the previous two decades, and so naval tactics were often quite new.
Surface fleets were dominated by the battleships, then often known as dreadnoughts. These vessels combined a large number of heavy guns with a thick layer of armor, and yet their turbine engines gave them enough speed to participate in the rare instances of large-scale action. Capable of firing directly at targets ten miles away, the dreadnoughts did not need to draw too close in order to be effective.
While the emplacement of guns on turrets permitted a 360 degree field of fire, dreadnoughts were most effective in firing a broadside, much like the sailing vessels of Nelson’s day. Most classes of dreadnought placed their guns on the center axis, which enabled all to fire in a broadside. Thus, the rules of maneuver could be surprisingly archaic, with an emphasis on crossing the opponent’s path, enabling one’s own ships to fire broadsides at vessels heading into the fire. Known as “Crossing the T,” this tactic was successfully executed by the British several times in the greatest naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Jutland.
Dreadnoughts did not go into battle unescorted, however. Smaller craft, known as cruisers, accompanied the dreadnoughts, sailing at some distance from the heavier vessels, simultaneously screening them from the enemy while providing advance notice of enemy activity. The cruisers that sailed in these actions were typically of the heavy variety, protected by armor plating and carrying medium-sized guns. They were strong enough to deal with small threats on their own, and help would quickly be available for larger threats, if the cruiser were unable to withdraw.
A new development in the last years before the outbreak of war was the emergence of the battlecruiser, a vessel between the dreadnoughts and the cruisers in strength. The battlecruisers were roughly as large as the dreadnoughts, and carried guns of the same size, but were much faster due to a lack of heavy armor. The planners had foreseen them as the next step in cruiser design, able to overtake and overpower enemy cruisers, while proving capable of escaping from a concerted dreadnought attack.
In practice, battlecruisers were employed as lighter dreadnoughts, rather than as heavier cruisers, and this resulted in some unnecessary losses. Again at the Battle of Jutland, Admiral Beatty commanded a detachment of battlecruisers that engaged the Germans while the main British fleet waited out of sight; the trap succeeded, but three battlecruisers were lost by the end of the battle.
Other vessels also contributed to the efforts of large fleets, such as those that fought at Jutland. Destroyers and submarines were employed by both sides in offensive and defensive capacities alike. In this context, submarines were less of a threat than they would be in the Second World War. Torpedoes still had a short range, lessening their impact. Large vessels, even dreadnoughts, carried torpedoes, but rarely were able to use them for this reason. Minelayers were also employed to hinder an advance or a retreat; sometimes submarines filled this role.
Other technological developments affected the fleet’s performance. Radio communication made it possible to coordinate larger fleets over greater distances; it also permitted the enemy to intercept such communications. Both sides also made use of aircraft and balloons for the purposes of reconnaissance.
Fleets of this sort rarely saw action, even partially. In the long run, they were strategic forces, with the British fleet enforcing its blockade while the German fleet remained a threat against which the British had to remain watchful. Far more action was performed by single vessels or small groups acting on the high seas, raiding enemy shipping or engaging in pursuit of such raiders.
Any vessel might serve as a raider or fight against one, although dreadnoughts were not used in such a fashion. Battlecruisers were so used, however, as in the Falklands action in which two British battlecruisers led the pursuit of a German cruiser squadron. At the other end of the spectrum, however, merchant ships and other civilian vessels were often armed and used to raid enemy shipping, or to surprise raiders and submarines.
All of the major naval powers employed submarines, and in 1914, Britain and France actually had the largest submarine fleets. Surface dominance, however, relegated the submarine to a tertiary role, while the German need to break that dominance spurred the Germans on to invest heavily in this technology. German successes, in turn, inspired more attention on the Allied side to antisubmarine techniques.
While submariners would happily sink dreadnoughts and battlecruisers if the opportunity presented itself, they primarily served as raiders against merchant shipping. The ability to travel underwater simply enabled them to sneak past the blockade more easily than surface raiders, however, and so the German U-Boats became the primary weapon of the German Navy by the end of the war.
The limitations of the torpedo meant that many submarines began the war by making surface attacks, using a deck-mounted gun to stop, and eventually to sink, a merchant vessel. Allied countermeasures eventually drove them underwater; sometimes the British would outfit a seemingly helpless vessel with weapons, while in other cases the merchant vessel served as bait while a British submarine awaited the U-Boat. In time, German submarines came to rely on their torpedoes, which improved substantially in quality over time.
Technologically, the Allies responded with more effective antisubmarine tools, turning destroyers into submarine-killers. Because submarines were spending more time underwater, destroyers were outfitted with devices known as hydrophones, which gave them a chance to detect subs lurking nearby. When they were found, explosive canisters known as depth charges were rolled off the back of the destroyer, with luck exploding near the enemy submarine. Even if the sub were not destroyed, it might be damaged.
To be effective, however, the destroyer needed to be where the submarines were, and for that reason alone it seems odd that the convoy system was not adopted prior to the middle of 1917. Not only was the system already in use in purely military activity, such as the deployment of soldiers over sea, but it placed the destroyer exactly where the submarine could be expected to strike. Once instituted, merchant vessels sailed in tight groups under the care of several destroyers, generally on the order of one destroyer for every three or four merchant vessels. In this fashion, losses were reduced substantially.
As is also true of land and air operations, naval operations underwent significant transformation during the course of the First World War. When attention is focused on the grand drama of a major clash of heavy warships, it seems that little changed. The Battle of Jutland was large, but lacking decisive conclusions, it fell short of the standard of Tsushima, let alone Trafalgar. As a strategic force, however, naval power continued to develop new dimensions, and as it did so, a host of new offensive and defensive tactics emerged. These tactics carried over directly into the Second World War, in which they effectively eclipsed traditional naval clashes in the European portion of the conflict.
Dickie, Iain et al. Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare 1190 BC – Present. St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
London, Charles. Jutland 1916: Clash of the Dreadnoughts. Osprey, 2000.
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