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from Blackwood's magazine (1910-jun)
VOL CLXXXVII. NO. MCXXXVI., pp 893-900

NEW WARS FOR OLD.

By COLONEL À COURT REPINGTON, C.M.G.

I. THE SUBMARINE MENACE.


  SINCE the last great war came to an end in 1905, science has endowed strategy with new arms of such importance, and such eventual menace, that although they have not altered the grand and eternal principles of strategy, they have so gravely altered the conduct of war, and of naval war in particular, that we are bound to rearrange and sort out our ideas afresh, and to prepare for war of a character wholly different from that which the majority of us, even professionals, have hitherto anticipated.

  I think that the North Sea falls within the category of narrow waters which eventually must, by a process of evolution which is taking place under our eyes that is to say, by the invention or development of the airship, the submarine, the torpedo, and the mine become practically closed on the outbreak of war, and possibly throughout the war, to the operations of sea-going fleets and cruisers. I think that the great ships to which we devote so much money every year though they have been, are, and may for a few years more be necessary will within a limited period of time become useless for most operations of which the North Sea and the Channel will be the theatre. I think that these conclusions, provided that I can, however imperfectly, show cause for them, will represent a new situation for the Navy, the Army, and Commerce, and that the public, if it wishes to avoid a panic, must be made aware of these new conditions, and must be prepared for them.

  I will first endeavour to show cause why neither Dreadnoughts, pre-Dreadnoughts, nor super-Dreadnoughts will, a few years hence, have any place in a naval war waged in such narrow waters as those of the North Sea. I am not going to discuss the idea which presided over the armour and armament of these monsters. I wonder why they sacrifice buoyancy, offensive power, coal capacity; and speed to the pleasure of carrying armour which can be pierced by the projectiles of the guns of the ships which they are built to fight; and I wonder why, as we have guns which can pierce the armour of the ships of our rivals, we should cast about for a heavier gun which will pierce armour of a greater thickness than any ship carries.

  But these are naval mysteries which do not interest me very much. The real point lies elsewhere. The super-Dreadnought costs from two to two and a-half millions sterling, carries a thousand men, and can be sunk by a torpedo fired from an invisible submarine, costing perhaps £60,000 to £80,000, at 7000 yards range. No naval constructor has yet succeeded in designing a ship which can retain its buoyancy after receiving the shock of the explosion of a modern torpedo. The Germans have added 2000 tons to the displacement of their latest ships in the hope that they will have effected this object, but I do not suppose that their constructors will have solved a problem which has baffled ours.

  The modern torpedo is a weapon of which the full powers, and the full significance, have not yet been displayed in war. The Japanese torpedo in the last war was the 11-inch type, with 100 lb. of wet gun-cotton in the warhead. Great though the material and moral effect of the initial surprise at Port Arthur was, the Japanese torpedo craft suffered from tactical and technical disadvantages which prevented them throughout the war from gaining much more than partial successes. The war-heads of the Japanese torpedoes were so built that the centres of gravity of the charges were at some distance from a ship's side when exploded. The range was often too great. Leaks in the net-cutter glands sometimes drowned the explosives. The use of the gyroscope was not appreciated. In several instances torpedoes were frozen in the tubes and adjustments insufficiently supervised. The absence of any reserve of destroyers prevented the Japanese command from taking full war risks, while there was, I believe, inadequate control of flotillas acting nominally in co-operation with fleets. Lastly, there were the disadvantages inherent in all destroyer action at the time namely, exposure to gun-fire, noise of engines, emission of smoke, flame, and sparks from funnels, and the bow wave which a searchlight so readily shows up at night.

  The improvement of the torpedo and the development of submersibles and submarines have already completely changed the position of affairs since the last war. We went on from the 18-inch torpedo, with a range of 4000 yards and a speed of 36 knots for 1000 yards, to the 21-inch torpedo, weighing nearly a ton, with a range of over 7000 yards and a speed of 40 knots. Improvements in the controlling mechanism have endowed this torpedo with astonishing accuracy, while the charge of gun-cotton carried in the head is almost treble the Japanese figure, and can be depended on to detonate at all likely angles on hitting a ship. Thus we have already arrived at a weapon which can compete with the gun at medium if not long fighting ranges, and can deliver a far more deadly blow. By no means is this the last word of the torpedo, and we must expect the future to give us and our enemies a weapon of even greater powers.

  Even if there were nothing but the destroyer to receive this weapon for its main armament, the position of battleship and cruiser would be gravely shaken by this new development, but, combined with the submarine, the new torpedo becomes a weapon of deadly menace; while the submarine herself worst of all for battleship and cruiser has not yet found her naval destroyer, nor is open, except accidentally and by chance, to any known form of attack by ships in fair and normal fighting circumstances. The latest type of submarine has a surface speed of 15 knots, which is certain to increase year by year, a displacement of 400 to 800 tons, and a range of 2500 miles. The speed submerged remains at present about 10 knots. The large addition of electric storage necessary to increase the speed of submarines under water entails so much more weight that it is out of proportion to the gain of speed; but motive power on the surface can easily be increased, and doubtless will be year by year until the submarine is able to do much more than all the destroyer can do now.

  There are already some 600 British and German torpedo craft of all denominations and all values, including submarines, in existence, and I suppose that the number of these craft, British and German, will increase at the rate of some 50 a year. I think that Germany realises the value of the submarine, and will soon astonish us by her productive capacity in this type. When shipyards are adequately equipped, some 30 submarines call be built for the price of a super-Dreadnought and in less than half the time. Germany has devoted, I believe, some 37 million marks to the construction of submarines up to the present, and, as each boat costs about a million and a half marks, there must be a considerable number completing. The Dilke return declares that the number is uncertain, but this does not imply that there is any real uncertainty on the subject at the Admiralty.

  We have, it is true, a long advance, and probably a somewhat better type, as we have had more experience; but we are no further advanced than we were a few years ago in the discovery of naval means for attacking submarines, which, for their part, are constantly improving their range, armament, efficiency, and safety. Considering, further, the immense development of mine warfare, especially of an offensive character, of late years, and the probability that even submarines will be used to lay lines of mines, there will very soon be no place for anything but the airship, the torpedo, and the mine in naval operations in the North Sea.

  It is time for us to recognise that the North Sea, in time of war, will very soon be, if it is not now, no place for a sea-going fleet. Swarms of destroyers and submarines, and every year more of the latter, will infest this sea, and the existence of every great ship venturing into the area controlled by these pests, which are almost unassailable by naval means, will be most precarious. Our great and costly battleships and cruisers must be stowed away safely in some distant, safe, and secluded anchorage, Scapa Flow and Portsmouth to-day, Berehaven and Lough Swilly perhaps to-morrow. The North Sea in time of war will be a desert of waters, insecure to both sides, open to neither, commanded by none. Britannia may rule the waves, but who will rule above them and below? The answer to this riddle I shall endeavour to give in a second article, and I meanwhile pass on with the reflection that whatever means Germany may possess for attacking submarines effectually, we possess none.

  There is an idea entertained, I do not say by the Admiralty, but by some writers on naval matters and by the public, that we shall once more make the five-fathom line off the enemy's coast our frontier, and that our Navy, in one disposition or another, will directly interpose between the German and the British coasts. There has been much loose talk of operations on the German coasts, of raids into German territory, and of the seizure of German islands, one of which, in consequence, has been hastily fortified. I have endeavoured to demonstrate elsewhere that all this strategy, resurrected from the dead past, and based upon wholly unjustifiable conclusions from certain episodes of the Seven Years War, is as dead as Queen Anne. Nothing is impossible in war, nor can any operation be ruled out a priori, because circumstances govern action. But our aim in war is to succeed, and I have never seen the proof of how, by wasting our Army and by involving the Navy in the expensive process of scratching at the German coasts, we can exercise and pressure worth talking about, or expedite by an hour the conclusion either of a general war, or of a maritime war in which we and Germany are alone involved. All that we do by this strategy is to enable Germany to wage war in the most favourable conditions for the success of her arms.

  In the old days we were compelled to watch the ports of France and Spain because, unless we did so, the fleets of those countries were able to put to sea, to unite, and to attack our trade and our possessions where they pleased. It is neither necessary nor advisable to follow this practice against Germany, because geographical conditions place her in a very unfavourable situation against us, and it is open to us to make the North Sea a mare clausum in war both to German sea-going fleets and to German merchant vessels. Why should we incur all the risks and losses involved in coastal warfare and conjoint operations on the German shores of the North Sea and the Baltic, without any hope of adequate return, when by stationing our main fleets, for example, at Scapa Flow and the Straits of Dover, we can exercise a more effective pressure, incur less risks, and compel the Germans, if they desire to free themselves from our potent strategic embrace, to cross the North Sea and challenge us at home?

  It is seven years since I ventured to point out in the pages of 'Maga' (1) the advantages which we might derive from the utilisation of the Orkney Islands and the control of the water area extending thence past the Shetland Islands to Norway. I was very glad to notice the tardy discovery of Scapa Flow a little while ago, and I believe that it is at present the best jumping-off place for our main fleet. Moreover, these waters are full of unpleasant surprises for navigators who do not know them. The swilkies of Stroma and Swona, Lother reef, the bore of Duncansby in a south-easterly gale, the race of the Merry Men of Mey off Torness in a westerly swell, and certain little peculiarities of the currents make the neighbourhood of the Pentland Firth about as uncomfortable water for strange submarines as any one could wish.

  We have a sort of half-digested idea that because we "blockade" the enemy's ports in old days we ought to do so again. Some impulsive people get purple in the face when they hear of any strategy but that of Duncan at Camperdown. They only ask to lie alongside the enemy, and will let strategy go hang. But, after all, it is not possible by naval action to extract a hostile fleet from its harbour, like an oyster from its shell, if it does not propose to come out; while, as for blockading, in its popular interpretation, Nelson's principle was absolutely the reverse, as he has left on record in the plainest terms. Not even the watches off Brest, Toulon, and Cadiz are now very simple operations. The mine, the improved torpedo, the submarine, the destroyer, the air-ship, wireless telegraphy, and long-ranging coastal ordnance, have revolutionised the conditions of operations off an enemy's coast, and strategy, whether it likes it or not, has to take count of a new situation.

  I think that our battle fleets will have to keep out of harm's way and leave the flotillas to carry on the war. Where our main fleet or fleets should be anchored; when they should shift their positions; and at what moment they should pass to the attack, are secrets of the higher command, when it is competent, keeps these secrets locked up in its own breast. It will do so with the greater facility in the case under notice, because our main fleets are not likely to put to sea until the enemy is afoot, and because our action must be dependent upon that of the enemy.

  Now if, for the sake of argument, it will be conceded that practically the whole of the East Coast of England and Scotland will in course of time, if not now, be directly defended at sea by the flotillas, and practically by the flotillas alone, it follows that these must be numerous, and must possess many bases where they can be repaired in security. Dirigibles, when we possess them, must have sheds, the destroyers must have well defended ports where their crews can rest from a most fatiguing service, and submarines must have stations where their activities can be renewed. We have only three submarine stations on our East coast at present, including the new station at Dundee. Parent ships and repairing vessels, not to speak of floating docks, give the Admiralty much scope in making their dispositions, but it would be more satisfactory were the submarine stations much more numerous. At each station there should be storage for gasolene and petroleum, charging stations for electric batteries and for air, and a slipway to enable vessels to be cleaned and tanks overhauled. We cannot be satisfied until the number of these stations is increased, and until large flotillas of destroyers and submarines are permanently attached to them. An initial defensive deployment does not preclude, and may render more easy, offensive war.

  Now, assuming that this argument is not knocked into a cocked hat by some practical seaman, as I hope it may be, I wish to outline the consequences which appear to follow for the interests of Commerce from the general strategic conception which I have indicated. It is possible, but not certain, that we may be able to give relative protection to the up-Channel trade bound for the Port of London, but as the enemy will make determined efforts to harass and attack this trade, and as trade itself is very sensitive, we must anticipate that a part of it more or less according to our success or failure in discovering a way to attack hostile submarines will be diverted to our southern and western English ports. As some ten millions of people are fed daily through the mouth of the Thames, and as the greater part of the fuel and raw material required by the capital passes through the same mouth, the resulting situation will be serious. Our other ports and railways are little prepared, at short notice, to convert themselves from veins into arteries, and I think that there will be, at the capital, a great rise in the price of all food-stuffs and fuel, great sufferings among rich and poor alike, and not improbably serious riots.

  Along the rest or the East Coast of England and Scotland, trade by way of the sea will probably be almost suspended until the submarine menace is disposed of. The limits of the activity of hostile submarines are dependent on their range, which is governed by their fuel capacity. A good modern submarine, with a range of 2500 miles, cannot be allowed a less radius of action than 1000 miles, and every port within that distance of Heligoland, Emden, or the Elbe mouth must be considered open to the submarine menace when Germany completes her submarine flotillas. Oversea trade will seek other ports, and the products of districts which use East Coast ports will be despatched to their markets by rail. These consequences are likely to follow whether we concentrate our naval forces off the German coasts, as Colonel von Bieberstein, in the 'Neue Militärische Blätter,' declares we must, or whether we do not. Nothing that we can effect by naval means can, with any certainty, prevent German submarines from putting to sea when they please, and from appearing off our coasts at their own sweet will.

  I think that public opinion ought to be prepared, and so ought the Army and the merchants of England and Scotland, for developments at sea of the character which I have roughly sketched. We ought not to think, in case our Navy does not take post off the German coasts or fails to bring the German fleets to action immediately, that we are not playing the correct game, which is the strangulation of German sea-borne trade by the intelligent use of our Navy and of our commanding geographical position. We ought to be able to make fairly sure of success in this strategy, so far as the particular object in view is concerned, unless or until the German Navy steams proudly out to face the ordeal of battle, when the result will rest on the knees of the gods.

  But this classic encounter may be denied to us, and our particular object at present must be to devise means, if we can, to meet the submarine menace of the future. We might adapt to naval use those poaching expedients, the "cross-line" and the "otter," while here and there chains and nets may upset the stability of the submarine, hydro-planes notwithstanding. But I doubt whether strictly naval means will ever be discovered for the effectual combating of the submarine. The range of vision under water through the scuttle of the conning tower of a submarine, and with the sun shining, is only ten yards at a depth of fifteen feet, so that the pursuit of the submarine under water by faster craft of its own type does not hold out much chance of success. A destroyer may sink by fire or run down a submarine which is caught upon the surface, but this event is only likely to happen when the submarine is already blinded or disabled, whether by the loss of her periscopes or otherwise. The ability of a submarine to proceed under water for several hours in any direction without coming to the surface makes it most unlikely that a flotilla, even if its presence be detected, can be followed up and disposed of by naval means.

  Therefore, while I think that the main object of our strategy against Germany can be achieved, I am much less confident of success in the war of the flotillas. If, for example, Germany discovers or has discovered the means for effectually attacking submarines, and if we have not, it is possible that Germany, when she has constructed the submarines upon which she seems resolutely bent, may dominate the North Sea by their means, and put us to the dilemma either of allowing her army of invasion to land, or of attacking it maybe a convoy of dummy transports, and of thus exposing our battle fleets to the blows of German submarines which we may have no certain means of destroying. It will not be altogether a satisfactory end to a war if we ruin, indeed, German sea-borne trade, but end with the Pomeranian Grenadier in Palace Yard and the Altona Corps at Arthur's Seat.

  We cannot doubt that, provided Germany does not open the ball with a naval surprise followed by invasion, she will make ready the troops destined for invasion, and will keep them ready to reap the fruits of any success that fortune may send her at sea. We cannot hope to attack Germany on land without allies, because an oversea attack upon an armed nation is an absurdity. But Germany can hope to attack us and herein lies the profound difference between the military position of the two countries in war if she secures the local control of maritime communications for a limited period, more properly to be measured by hours than by days.

  It is very difficult to make people think in anything but terms of Dreadnoughts. I am not in the least attacking the Dreadnought policy. I believe that the Dreadnought was the natural evolution from the type which immediately preceded it, and that without our Dreadnought ships we should be now, and for some years to come, very insecure. But I think that as soon as the German submarine flotilla is fairly complete, there will be no place for any great ship in the North Sea.

  Very probably this opinion will be strongly denied. Many great firms have laid down an immense and expensive plant for the construction of these monsters, and will be sure to use all the literary and other talent at their disposal to maintain the present policy of construction even when the German submarines are ready. It is also certain that it must be a perfectly hateful idea to senior officers of the Navy that a wretched little submarine should dominate waters in which a Dreadnought proudly sails. Yet, what other conclusion is possible? The submarine can observe, attack, and sink the Dreadnought ship while she can neither observe, nor attack, nor yet sink, except by accident, the submarine. It will be David and Goliath over again, with this difference, that instead of the little pebble from the brook, the submarine will send 300 lb. of gun-cotton into the vitals of her foe.

  I am, therefore, far more concerned to see a greater development of the flotillas than I am to see much more money expended upon a type which, like Roland's mare, has all merits imaginable, but is unfortunately dead. Most of all do I hope to see means discovered for attacking submarines effectually, and in a second article I hope to give some additional reasons for my belief that a naval war in the North Sea presents problems to which neither the last great war in the Far East, nor any war recorded by history, affords any guidance at all.
 
 

(1) "Imperial Strategy:" By a Staff Officer. 'Maga,' May 1903. <<==== Back

(End.)
 
 

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