Naval Power in the Present War
PART I: General View of the Situation

By Lieutenant Charles C. Gill United States Navy

[The New York Times/Current History, January 1917]

Lieutenant Gill is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and a member of the Naval Institute. After eight years in the Atlantic fleet, devoted mostly to gunnery, he served recently in the Naval Academy as instructor in English and history. Lieutenant Gill is now again in active service on the United States superdreadnought Oklahoma. He is the author of various expert monographs on naval topics. The article here presented is the first of a series which he has written for CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE on the naval lessons of the present war. The series has been submitted to the Hon. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, in accordance with the regulations in such matters, and is published with the sanction of the Naval Department.

Sea power in the present war has been exerted for the most part behind the scenes. For this reason the potent influence of the silent navies has not been brought home to the public mind. It is hard to realize that the achievements of the allied fleets, accomplished with so little fighting, have had, nevertheless, a far-reaching effect upon the conduct of the war, in comparison to which the much-heralded land battles, involving frightful loss of life and property, are, in their influence toward bringing the war to a decision, small and relatively insignificant.

Before taking up the disposition of potential naval power at the beginning of the war, and the transition to the present conditions of divided active control, it might be well to explain the meanings of some of the technical terms used in speaking of naval operations.

The sea power of a nation may be said to comprise all its means for contesting for control of the sea. It includes the battle fleets and their auxiliaries, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, aircraft, also naval bases and stations, fortified or naturally protected harbors, coast defenses, the merchant marine, (embracing armed and unarmed vessels engaged in commerce and passenger traffic), in short, everything the country possesses that may be useful, directly or indirectly, for the purposes of naval warfare.

Big-gun ships comprise the main reliance in battle and are known as "dreadnoughts." These are divided into dreadnought battleships and dreadnought battle cruisers, the difference between the two being that a certain amount of the gun power and armor of the battleship is sacrificed in the battle cruiser in order to get speed. Predreadnought battleships differ from the dreadnought battleships in that, instead of carrying all big guns and torpedo defense guns, they carry some big guns and some smaller or intermediate battery guns, thus tapering down to the torpedo defense guns. The armored cruiser is faster than the predreadnought battleship, carrying less armor and less powerful guns.

Both predreadnought battleships and armored cruisers are discredited in that no more are being built, but they are by no means useless, and still form an important part of the strength of the more powerful world navies. The light cruiser, used for commerce destroying and scouting, is a comparatively light, fast vessel without armor and carrying a light battery of intermediate calibre guns. The light cruiser type has shown considerable usefulness in the present war and may be regarded as a development of the torpedo boat destroyer, as it also carries torpedo tubes, but the light cruiser is larger and more seaworthy, more habitable and better armed than the destroyer. The torpedo boat is a smaller edition of the destroyer, and the submarine requires no definition. An auxiliary cruiser or a converted cruiser is a merchant ship or private vessel requisitioned by the Government for naval purposes. Such a vessel is usually armed for both offense and defense. She loses her character, of a merchant ship engaged in peaceful pursuits and becomes a part of the fighting navy with the status of a regular man-of-war.

On the other hand, an armed merchantman is armed simply for defense. She is not a part of the fighting navy, and her character is determined by her employment. If she is still engaged in the peaceful pursuits of trade the fact that a ship carries one or two guns for defense only does not change her character into that of a man-of-war.

Strategy and tactics comprise the science and art of using these elements of sea power with the object of getting control of the seas. The word strategy conveys the idea of preparation for the fighting and tactics that of the execution of the fighting.

Potential Sea Control

When nations of maritime importance are at war relative control of the sea, or certain parts of the sea, belongs to the belligerent whose sea power has practically driven the sea power of the other from the areas in question, so that the maritime operations of the former, both naval and commercial, are practically unhindered, while the maritime operations of the latter are for the time being practically nonexistent. For example, it is generally considered that the Allies at present control the Atlantic. This does not mean that the maritime operations of the Central Powers in these waters have been literally extinguished. It would appear impossible, in the face of an enterprising and resourceful enemy, to prevent completely the operations of submarines and occasional commerce destroyers. But as long as these do not materially affect the maritime operations of the Allies it is proper to say that the latter control the Atlantic. There are varying degrees of sea control, and the more extensive the submarine and commerce destroying activities of the Central Powers in the Atlantic the less completely do the Allies control this sea area.

Theoretically, in times of peace at least, the seas are free to all, but even then certain areas are said to be potentially controlled by certain nations by virtue of their relatively superior sea power in these respective waters. For example, the superior sea power of Japan in Asiatic waters gives her in peace times what might be called potential control of those seas, and it may be assumed that this potential control increases the weight of her voice in international affairs of the Far East.

In times of war also the potential sea power of neutrals may easily prove important factors in this question of relative control of the seas between the belligerents. For example, suppose that the United States possessed a navy superior to the navies of the Allies; relatively speaking, between the Allies and the Central Powers, the former would still control the Atlantic Ocean, but the superior sea power of the United States would give this country a potential control of this ocean, which might affect the conduct of the maritime operations of all the belligerents, particularly in matters concerning the neutral rights of the United States.

International law is not very clearly codified, and it is natural that different nations should look at things from different angles. When great wars are going on potential sea power may prove especially valuable in securing respect for neutral rights.

Naval Losses to Date

Secrecy forms an important part of naval strategy and is favored by nature. The sea isolates and frequently swallows up all testimony of the fighting done. Hence, in the present war, the Admiralty announcements of both sides have been laconic. Notwithstanding this, however, there is plenty of evidence that the silent navies have not been idle. This is indicated by a summary of the losses sustained. It is reported that, in capital ships, Great Britain and her allies have lost four dreadnoughts and twelve predreadnoughts, while Germany and her allies have lost one dreadnought and three predreadnoughts. The Allies have lost seventeen armored cruisers and twelve light cruisers, against six armored cruisers and twenty-three light cruisers lost by the Central Powers. In other types the figures are less reliable, but the Allies have lost about twenty-seven destroyers, fifteen torpedo boats, twenty-four submarines, and twenty-eight converted cruisers and auxiliaries, while the Central Powers have lost about twenty-one destroyers, fourteen torpedo boats, between thirty and sixty submarines, and about forty-two converted cruisers and auxiliaries. In addition to these, both sides have lost numerous small craft, including air scouts, patrol boats, yachts, and mine-sweepers.

Of course, the primary purpose of battleships is to give battle, but it is to be borne in mind that sometimes there are important naval happenings without attending losses or even without fighting. The escape of the Goeben and Breslau may be cited as an example of conspicuous political significance.

The Goeben and Breslau

It is reported that during the first few days of the war the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau bombarded the Algerian coast, sank a few ships in Bona Harbor, and then proceeded to Messina, arriving there on Aug. 5, 1914. From the pre-wartime disposition of forces it may be assumed that the Allies had in the Mediterranean in that vicinity numerous men-of-war, including very likely two or three British battle cruisers, several fast light cruisers, and many destroyers. International law required that the German warships leave the neutral port of Messina within twenty-four hours. The chances for escape appeared rather dubious, and the following version of the manoeuvre, purported to be from the log of the Goeben, is of particular interest:

On Aug. 6, 1914, just before sailing from Messina the German commander issued these orders: "News about the enemy is uncertain. I presume his strength lies in the Adriatic and that he is watching both exits to the Messina Strait. Our object is to break through to the east and reach the Dardanelles. I want to create the impression that we intend to go to the Adriatic. In case I so succeeded I will veer round in the night and make for Cape Matapan, if possible throwing the enemy off our track."

As the ships—flags flying and music playing—were reaching the open sea the following wireless message from the Kaiser reached the Admiral: "His Majesty expects the Goeben and the Breslau to succeed in breaking through."

Shortly after leaving the harbor the English cruiser Gloucester appeared on the horizon. The English cruiser was emitting signals in three groups. The word "Mumfu" frequently occurred and it was clear that it referred to the Goeben. The wireless receivers interpreted the signal of the British cruiser as follows: "Goeben making for the Adriatic."

The German wireless officer argued thus: "I can jam him. If I break my waves against his perhaps I can confuse, hold up, destroy his messages. Shall I jam his wireless?" he asked the Admiral.

"Shall we fire?" asked the Commander.

"No," was the answer to both questions. No one apart from the staff understood the Admiral. This is how he argued, however: "This boat is evidently a patrol, intending to wireless our movements to the main British fleet. He shall save us, not ruin us. He shall do his work. We will neither fire at nor jam him. Let him wireless that the Germans are making for the Adriatic, whereas the Dardanelles is our object."

It was dark. The Breslau closed in. It was 10 o'clock in the evening; then came the order from the bridge: "Starboard; make for Cape Matapan."

The watching British cruiser saw the manoeuvre, but before she could wireless the news that the Germans were making for the east the following order flashed out from the Admiral: "Jam the wireless; jam it like the devil."

For hours the Germans were traveling eastward without obstacle, while the patrol boat tried to make itself understood in vain. Where did the error of our enemy lie? In England the excuse was advanced that the Germans had acquired knowledge of the British secret wireless code and so deceived the latter into waiting. Is it worth while contradicting such stuff? The English should have waited before the Strait of Messina, and nowhere else. But so confident were they that the Goeben and Breslau must try and break through to the Adriatic in order to reach an Austrian port, that they thought it safe to wait in the Strait of Otranto, which is forty sea miles wide. So positive were they on this point that the thought of our making for the Dardanelles never seems to have occurred to them.

When the wireless messages of the Gloucester finally reached the British fleet it was too late. The German ships were en route for Constantinople.

That this episode caused the Allies considerable chagrin may well be imagined. A little later, apparently as an alternative to disarming and being interned, the Goeben and Breslau were sold by Germany to Turkey, a transaction without precedent and involving a question of international law. Sharp representations were made by the Allies to Turkey claiming that the latter had violated her neutrality and demanding immediate repatriation of the officers and crews. Turkey failed to comply with their demands, and it is reasonable to suppose that the presence of the two warships in Constantinople had considerable influence in persuading the Government to join Germany and Austria in the war.

As another example of the kind of naval activity frequently overlooked because unmarked by noteworthy fighting, the work of destroying the enemy's cable and wireless lines and safeguarding one's own, may be mentioned.

Cable and Wireless Stations

Means of transmitting information are most important factors in modern strategy. These are now so efficient that it is extremely difficult for commerce destroyers of the nation of weaker sea power to escape the net drawn about them by the stronger navies dominating the seas. That the German ships on foreign stations well realized the part wireless and cable would play in their final downfall is evidenced by some interesting attempts made by them to destroy wireless stations and cable stations.

An instance of this was the visit of the Nürnberg and a German collier to the British cable station at Fanning Island in the mid-Pacific. The dull monotony of life on Fanning Island, scarcely more than a desert rock situated about four hundred miles south of the Hawaiian group, received a severe shock, when, on the morning of Sept. 7, the German cruiser Nürnberg paid its eminently informal call.

The cable employees were hard at work, when they were paralyzed to see a German officer at the door of the operating room with a revolver. "Take your hands off those keys, all of you!" he commanded. The men were made to line up against the wall while the sailors, with axes, smashed the delicate and costly instruments. Heavy charges of dynamite were planted and the cable was blown to atoms. In the meanwhile the collier grappled for the cable further out to sea with the intention of doing additional damage. Still another party planted guncotton and dynamite in the engine rooms, the boiler rooms, refrigerating plant, and in the dynamo rooms. The explosion from these charges was terrific, but no one was hurt. A search was then made by the officers, and a number of papers were taken which revealed that several valuable instruments were buried in reserve for just such contingencies, and that a quantity of hidden arms and ammunition existed, all of which were quickly uncovered and confiscated.

Later on the Nürnberg formed a part of Admiral Spec's squadron, which, after the victory off Coronel, attempted to raid the Falkland Islands in the same way as Fanning had been raided. But this time the British Navy did the surprising, and instead of a defenseless wireless station the Germans found Vice Admiral Sturdee on guard with a battle cruiser division. This superior force had just arrived from England the day before. The ensuing engagement resulted in the destruction of the German squadron.

Fate of the Emden

Another instance of cable attack, also unhappy in its results for the raiders, occurred in the Far East at the Cocos Islands. The valiant Captain Muller of the Emden attempted one of his bogus funnel ruses as a means of taking by storm the cable and wireless station on Keeling-Cocos Island. But the ruse was detected and well ahead by those in charge on shore, who promptly advised by wireless several British men-of-war near by. This led to the Emden's ultimate doom. Moreover, a rush cable message was sent out to the Navy Office at Melbourne, and the alertness and intelligence shown by the cable and wireless Superintendents showed that they had well learned the lesson taught by the raid on Fanning Island. The Emden, landing parties did, indeed, succeed in cutting two cables, but were too late. The intelligence which proved so fatal had already passed over the wires.

The story of the telegrapher's part in the sinking of the Emden is one of those records of ready wit and efficiency which make the best of romance. The guns of the Sydney sent the Emden on the rocks, but those guns would not have come into play had not the telegrapher at Cocos Island quickly recognized the enemy in all her disguise and dispatched the warning message throughout the world which brought the Sydney up in time. It is almost disturbing to think that before the boat's crew had landed from the Emden the warships were moving to the rescue and London was making arrangements for repairing the cable and wireless station.

The superior sea power of the Allies, however, has made German attempts on allied wireless and cable stations difficult, and, when successful, of only temporary embarrassment, while the overseas German stations, without ships to defend them, have passed permanently into the hands of the Allies. It is thus seen that in estimating the work done by the belligerent navies, there is more testimony to be considered than that set forth in a mere table of ship losses.

Significance of Sea Control

The consideration of sea power and what control of the sea signifies opens the way to a general estimate of the relative sea power of the countries involved in the European war, and their respective sea areas of potential control just before the war opened.

The Allies had superior sea power and consequent potential control in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, North Sea in short, in all sea areas excepting those adjacent to the ports and naval bases of the Central Powers, namely, the Adriatic near Austria's ports, the North Sea and the Baltic adjacent to Germany's ports, and the Sea of Marmora, the Dardanelles, and the Bosporus, under the control of Turkey.

Again, if a similar estimate of the situation at present is made, we find that there has been no material alteration. The fighting incident to changing the potential control into active control has followed a course quite to be expected, and maritime operations have been singularly free of surprises. The Allies made a notable attempt to wrest control of the Dardanelles, Sea of Marmora, and Bosporus from Turkey and her allies, but it failed, and, with the possible exception of the battle off the Jutland Peninsula, there has been no other active struggle to alter the areas of sea control as practically determined by the pre-wartime disposition of sea power. This apportionment of the seas is manifestly disadvantageous to the Teutonic powers, but the sea power of the latter, the part their navies play, and the waters they control, are by no means negligible.

Plans of Warring Navies

Broadly speaking, Great Britain's plan of naval campaign at the outbreak of hostilities aimed, first, to destroy the enemy fleets with superior forces, or, failing in this, to confine the enemy fleets and restrict his trade by a system of distant blockades; second, to convert potential control of the high seas into active control by destroying, capturing, or bottling up enemy men-of-war operating on foreign stations.

On the other hand, the weaker German and Austrian navies instituted a different kind of campaign. The Teutonic powers planned, first, to operate the home fleets so as to protect their coast line and control as wide as possible sea areas beyond, thereby preventing a close blockade and permitting commercial intercourse with neighboring neutral countries; second, to use naval vessels abroad so as to inflict greatest possible damage on their enemies before being cornered and destroyed by superior allied sea power or escaping to the shelter of home or friendly ports, as was the case when the Goeben and Breslau eluded numerous enemy ships in the Mediterranean and steamed safely through the Dardanelles to Constantinople; third, to interfere with and damage enemy commerce with submarines and commerce destroyers, such as the Möwe; and, fourth, the Teutonic powers planned to lessen the disparity of force between their navies and the superior navies of their enemies by so-called attritionative warfare, harassing and menacing the enemy in all possible ways, instituting raids with fast air and sea squadrons, attacking with mines and torpedoes, and watchfully seeking opportunity to fall upon a detached portion of the enemy fleet with a superior force.

How have these plans worked out? What has Teutonic sea power accomplished? What has allied sea power accomplished?

Early in the war a German cruiser squadron under Vice Admiral Count von Spee defeated a British cruiser force under Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock—but a month later this victorious squadron was destroyed by a superior British force off the Falkland Islands. German commerce destroyers, of which the Emden is a historic example, have done considerable damage to allied shipping. The exploits of submarines have astonished the world. The British shores have been raided both by air and sea attacks. In minor engagements as well as in the battle of Jutland, Germany, hitherto without traditions of the sea, has made a record which, ship for ship, places her fleet second to none.

But to what purpose? The superior naval power of the Allies has slowly but surely swept the German flag from off the seas. With no navy to protect them the German colonies have fallen one by one. On the other hand, the colonies of the Allies are secure, and a source of help and comfort to their mother countries. The seas are open highways to the Allies. Supplies and munitions of war constantly stream into their ports. Transports carry their troops all over the world. The fleets of the Central Powers are hemmed in comparatively close to their home shores. The grip of the blockading navies is ever tightening its hold.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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