Thursday, May 13, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes No Vacations, Part 6

All the talk of the Great War being “the war to end all wars” would have been easily considered complete bullshit by anyone paying attention at the time.  See, if you’re genuinely going to end war you actually have to begin beating those swords in to plowshares.  Following World War I, however, the major powers began designing sharper swords.

At this point we’re basically talking about three major players: Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.  Over the period from 1912 through the end of the First World War Japan had most definitely made itself a major player.  So we must discuss them again.

Japan’s rise to naval prominence was, primarily, the story of an Asian power making the right friends, specifically British shipbuilders and naval instructors.  From the Stonewall through Mikasa, the British-trained Japanese naval officers manned European-built warships.  But in 1912 that changed.

British shipbuilders laid down the battlecruiser Kongo in January of 1911.  She was a step above any other battlecruiser in the world and the lead ship of a four-ship class.  More importantly, Kongo was also the last Japanese capital ship built abroad.  By spring of 1915 Hiei, Kirishima, and Haruna had been laid down, fitted out, and commissioned in Japan.  At the same time, the Japanese built Fuso and Yamashiro, both full-sized battleships, as well as their half-sisters the Ise and Hyuga.

In 1917 the Japanese laid down Nagato, the first ship in the world armed with 16 inch guns.  She and her sister, Mutsu, were also capable of steaming at 27 knots.  At that time the fastest battleships in the world were the British Queen Elizabeths, capable of only steaming at 24 knots.  The United States, slaved to the standard plan,[1] wouldn’t build a ship capable of keeping up until the North Carolina-class entered service in 1941.

This seemingly minor difference matters quite a bit, too.  The Japanese were already looking toward the possibility of a war with the United States.  And their plan to win that war involved drawing the US fleet over to the Japanese side of the Pacific and engaging it in a battle of annihilation.  In short, they wanted a second Tsushima.

In order to understand Tsushima and the Japanese desire for a second one, we need to look to an American naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan.  His works loomed over everything in the battleship era.  His primary text was The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which was taught in the Japanese naval academy.

The idea was relatively simple, at least to those of us who live in a post-Mahan world.  Mahan’s thesis can boil down to this: build and concentrate a powerful navy, bring the enemy to a decisive battle, annihilate the enemy, and make it impossible for them to use sea power against you while controlling their ocean commerce.

This set of ideas makes perfect sense for a nation like, say, Great Britain.  As an island nation that stood firm against the Spanish Armada and Napoleon, they would instantly see the value of Mahan’s theory.  On some level they didn’t even need Mahan.  They already had Nelson and Trafalgar, which was the textbook example of the decisive battle at sea.

Mahan’s theories also made a certain amount of sense in the United States.  In the climate of the time, not so much.[2]  However, the United States was separated from its potential antagonists by large bodies of water.  Moreover, the ability of the Union to deny easy commerce between the Confederacy and Europe was a decisive piece of the Civil War victory.

Japan, then, stands as an Asiatic Great Britain.  The IJN’s decisive victories at the Battle of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima proved perfect proof-cases for the idea.  Their plan, then, for any war with America was to draw the American battleships across the vast expanse of the Pacific, destroy it in detail, then make sure that the Americans stayed on their side of the Pacific while the Japanese dominated the rest.

Mahan’s ideas really only had two serious alternatives: the Jeune Ecole, which was basically the opposite idea, and British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher’s, which was more of a disagreement over methodology.  The question for the latter was what to do about overseas possessions with a fleet that couldn’t possibly control the entire world.  Mahan, coming from isolationist America, argued in favor of a strong home fleet.  Fisher argued in favor of a strong colonial fleet.

The Japanese sided with Mahan.  They did not have a vision for a global empire, but an Asian one.

The British, meanwhile, had a policy of controlling a navy capable of defeating the next two largest navies in the world.  As long as their primary opponents were some combination of France, Russia, and Germany, this was an extremely doable option.  But at the end of World War I everything had changed.

The United States had gotten a taste of naval power.  In 1916 Congress authorized the building of ten battleships and six battlecruisers, all armed with 16 inch guns.  The Japanese countered with plans for eight of each, also armed with 16 inch guns.

The British, meanwhile, had laid down the four ships of the Hood-class and, beyond that, had a whole lot of nothing.

Cooler heads, however, prevailed.  Kind of.  Following World War I the British had the most experience and access to German ships but the least ability to exploit it.  The Americans had already completed three of the four Maryland-class ships and laid down the six South Dakota-class battleships[3] and six Lexington-class battlecruisers, but now they were committed to ships that had been rendered somewhat obsolete by the lessons of Jutland.  The Japanese, meanwhile, were faced with the prospect of America fortifying the Philippines and being able to win that battle of annihilation.

In November of 1921, then, these three powers, plus the French and Italians, met in Washington and agreed to limit their naval arms race.

As far as battleships go, the Washington Naval Treaty decided many things.  But I’ll just handle it in broad strokes.  The British were allowed to keep Hood, the Japanese Mutsu, and the Americans three of the four Marylands.  All other new construction was to be scrapped.  Fleet sizes were to be reduced, with a ratio of 10 battleships each for the United States and Great Britain and six each for France[4], Italy, and Japan.  After that there was to be a ten-year moratorium on new construction, save a pair of British battleships built to the newly agreed upon size limits.  These limits put the maximum displacement of a battleship at 35,000 tons and the maximum barrel size at 16”.  Also, both America and Japan were allowed to convert two of their battlecruisers in to aircraft carriers.  The British got in on that deal, too.

And with that we come to the other set of events overtaking the world of battleships.

In June and July of 1921 a charismatic American general named Billy Mitchell had set out to prove that air power was the wave of the future.  He engaged in a series of high-profile tests, using bombers to sink the old pre-dreadnought Iowa, as well as a German sub, destroyer, and light cruiser.  But his greatest bit of theater was the sinking of the German dreadnought Ostfriesland.

And theater it was.  Ostfriesland had been scuttled at Scapa Flow following World War I, then raised.  She hadn’t exactly been well treated in the two and a half years since.  Still, Mitchell put out the word that she’d been known as the “Unsinkable Ostfriesland,” and set out to show that bombs could do it.

On day one bombers dropped 33 230-pound bombs and 19 600-pound bombs on the dreadnought.  Nine of the former and five of the latter hit, doing little real damage.  The following day a pair of 1000-pound bombs were dropped on the ship, then six one-ton bombs (when only three had been authorized).  She finally sank.

Meanwhile, all of the battleship’s watertight compartments were open during the test.  Her boiler room had been flooded the previous day, and the glass scuttles in the ship were really all that stood between the hull and the sea.  Someone[5] later said of that second day, “Mitchell could have sunk the Ostfriesland with a carpenter’s hammer.”  All in all, it was a dramatic, but ultimately hollow gesture.  Mitchell proved bombs could sink battleships, but level bombing proved to be a terrible strategy.

Over on the other side of the pond the British were having the same argument.  It was nothing so dramatic as Mitchell’s showmanship, however.  Bombers, it was pointed out, were cheaper.  The claim was made that 1000 bombers could be built for the cost of one battleship.  It turns out that the ratio was closer to 37:1.  Poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to…

Still, as the world entered the Roaring Twenties the state of things in the world of battleships was uncertain at best.  Navies found themselves arguing over bombing tactics and worrying about modernizing battleships that they would have otherwise scrapped.  That’s really the only reason that USS Texas is still in existence, though.


[1]The idea in the US was to build ships that all steamed at the same speed.  This isn’t a bad idea per se, but the speed chosen was 21 knots.  This was sufficient in 1914.  Not so much even in 1918.

[2]The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 came out in 1892, six years before the Spanish-American War when the American navy consisted the original Texas, the Maine, five “Civil War” monitors that had needed over two decades to be built, and a guy in a canoe holding a slingshot.

[3]In an effort to create the maximum amount of confusion, there were two different South Dakota-classes of American battleship.

[4]Which wasn’t even capable of that.

[5]I literally have no idea who.  But I have the quote itself on good authority, so I'm using it, dagnabit!


Michael Mock said...

"In 1917 the Japanese laid down Nagato, the first ship in the world armed with 16 inch guns. She and her sister, Mutsu, were also capable of steaming at 27 knots."

That's fairly impressive, but why did you leave out the description of the Wave Motion Gun? Or does that come in somewhere else in the history?

Fake Al Gore said...

If I remember correctly, the Wave Motion Gun was developed by the Chozo for use in their battle suits. It fires "wave energy" that can penetrate walls and armor. Or were you not wanting to talk about Metroid?

Also, that guy in the canoe must have been a serious bad ass.

Michael Mock said...

Hey, I'm still on the topic of battleships!

MTimonin said...

Might consider the difference between Mahan-capable nations and, well, France, and maybe Germany, as being the difference between naval and maritime nations - maritime nations tend to have a large population which makes a living from the sea, and so has a large pool of potential sailors and ship builders to draw on at need. Naval powers often have impressive navies, but from necessity rather than inclination.

Also, when considering the Washington Naval Treaty (and concurrent other treaties) - why was Belgium included in the 9 Power Treaty - the affirmation of the Open Door Policy? As far as I've been able to tell, Belgium had no interest in the Pacific at all, so why were they invited?

Geds said...

Is anime being discussed on my blog?


He totally was a badass. Near as I can tell he was the grandfather of the guy in the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World commercials...


That distinction between maritime and naval nations is brilliant, and one I've seen worked towards, but never put so succinctly before.

If you need me, I'll be off writing a whole post on this idea...

Michael Mock said...

"Is anime being discussed on my blog?"

Well, the title did include "nerdiness"...

Chris said...

All the talk of the Great War being “the war to end all wars” would have been easily considered complete bullshit by anyone paying attention at the time.

Did anybody actually believe this bullshit?