Beverley Nichols January 15 1934


Beverley Nichols January 15 1934


Beverley Nichols


Thank God We’ve Got a Navy

THE IMPUDENCE of what I am about to write, in this chapter, is astounding, even to me. I hardly know starboard from port, or stem from bow, and my natural inclination is to call a ship “it” instead of “she.” I approach the whole problem of the Navy, as a means of defense, not with an open mind, but with a blank one.

Perhaps I should say “approached,” because my mind is not quite as blank as it was. It was very evident, when I was trying to get to the bottom of this problem of defense, that I should have to face the little matter of the British Navy. Was it our defense and shield, or was it a white elephant? In a great war, would it protect our people and ensure our food supplies, as it had always done in the past, or would half of it be blown to smithereens by aircraft while the other half was sunk by submarines?

You may tell me that such questions can only be answered by experts. Maybe. But that is no reason why an enquiring layman should not spend a few months trying to answer them. After all, he is a taxpayer, and the Navy costs him quite a lot of money. He has to foot the bill, and there is surely no harm in learning what he is paying for? The Admiralty may tell him that it is none of his business, of course. But the modem taxpayer has no use for that sort of obscurantism. He will be more inclined to sympathize with my own attitude, which made me determine not to be bluffed by the experts, nor blinded by the veils of mystery in which naval matters are always shrouded. After all, at school and in the university one is expected to form intelligent opinions on naval engagements whose importance is purely academic, with data far less voluminous than we possess concerning our own navy today, whose importance can hardly be overrated if one is a citizen of this far-flung Empire.

And so I began to scour the libraries for histories of the Navy in the Great War, for forecasts of the Navy in the next great war, for warnings, judgments, statistics and what not. There was a mass of material to read, and it was not till afte* some months study that I was even able to divide the problem into its main divisions. But it emerged, clearly, at length that the first subject on which the intelligent layman must make up his mind is the power of submarines.

The Threat Underseas

THERE IS A school of thought which maintains with considerable force that the development of submarine warfare has rendered surface fleets obsolete. And at first sight this school seems to have an almost unanswerable case. Here is what the prophets of this school proclaim:

“We base our conclusions on the evidence of the last war. In this, the Mistress of the Seas was nearly rendered impotent by German submarines, although Germany never had more than 175 submarines, of which less than sixty were in action at the same time.”

However, the submarine Jonahs have a good deal more to say than that. They remind us, for example, that since the war, the building of submarines has been feverish, by every nation but Britain, so that at the time of writing the comparative strength of the Great Powers, in this arm, is as follows:

France.................. 84

U. S. A.................. 82

Japan................... 63

British Empire........... 55

But apart from the mere question of numerical strength, there are further menaces to be considered. Remember,

Germany’s submarines throughout the war were in by no means an ideal position to threaten our maritime communications.

Her submarines were compelled to find their way through narrow, treacherous seas, alive with mines and scrupulously patrolled. Yet she sank 8,500,000 tons of British shipping, in the face of these immense odds and with only fifty-seven submarines in simultaneous action !

It was while I was pondering these facts and trying to find out what they meant that I came across a little book called Paris, or The Future of War by Captain Liddell Hart. He had come by different methods to the same conclusions, and though he is, as he admits, an amateur in naval strategy, he is a brilliant one and his observations are worth quoting.

“Contrast Germany’s geographical position with that of France, the chief submarine power of the immediate future. Her Atlantic bases lie directly opposite the sea approaches to the British Isles—in an ideal position for submarine action. Of potential significance also is the position of Ireland, an outer breakwater lying across the gateways to Great Britain, for should ever Ireland lend its harbors to an enemy as submarine bases, the odds would be hopeless.

“Turn again to the Mediterranean, another long and narrow sea channel through which runs our artery with the East, and where our main naval force is now concentrated. Note that our ships, naval or mercantile, must traverse the length of this channel, and, worse still, have to filter through a tiny hole at each end—the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal—while midway there is a narrow ‘waist’ between Sicily and Tunis, barely ninety miles across.

“Then look at the geographical position of Toulon and of the French naval ports on the North African coast, and note how the radii of submarine attack intersect the long single line of British sea communication. Is it not obvious that if in a future war any Mediterranean power was numbered among Britain’s enemies, her fleet would find it difficult enough to protect itself against submarines, let alone protect merchant convoys and troop transports?”

Beating the Submarine

THAT, IN A nutshell, is the case for those naval critics who maintain that the submarine has tom a hole in Britain’s naval shield which no power on earth can mend.

It is a startling argument. A frightening argument. At first sight, an unanswerable argument.

And it is utterly false.

This, at least, is the conclusion I have been forced to, after studying the evidence. Remember, I am a pacifist, but I hope I am an honest one. It would have fitted very well into the plan of this book to be able to write a chapter stating sadly that the British Navy was useless—an obsolete collection of submarine fodder. However, it does not happen to be true. Because the evidence all goes to show that the damage done by submarines in the Great War was not due so much to the strength and invincibility of the submarine attack as to the weakness of the defense against them.

All that is argued about the relatively small number of German submarines during the Great War and the damage inflicted by them is true. In fact, this part of the argument can be actually strengthened, when one realizes howsmall a proportion of submarines can be kept in action at one time, owning to the necessity for extensive repairs, both to the ships and to the nerve-racked men.

But—and it is a big “but”—as soon as the British Admiralty woke up—after some years of slaughter and appalling loss—it became very evident that the submarine would be beaten. And actually, though most people do not realize

this, it was beaten, by careful operation of the convoy system.

It is quite beyond my powers to give you a technical description of the convoy system. Its main principle is implicit in its title. It was proved, at the end of the war. that convoys with escorting craft, carrying guns, ran far less risk than single vessels. How striking was the decrease may be gathered from these facts:

“The fear that convoy might break down under the conditions of modem warfare was soon dissipated, and none can doubt that the system proved the salvation of the Allies ... On May 20, 1917, the first convoy reached England from Gibraltar without any loss. It was followed by another, arriving from Hampton Roads, likewise intact. The first assembly numbered seventeen ships, and the second twelve ... by October no fewer than 1,502 steamers of 10,656,300 tons d.w. in ninety-nine convoys had been brought into port, with the loss of only twenty-four vessels; of these, only ten had been sunk in convoy. The remainder were lost either after separating or through the disobedience of their masters. An outstanding feature among the results of convoy was that, during the last four months of the year, only six ships were sunk farther out to sea than fifty miles, instead of 175 vessels similarly destroyed during the period Jrom April to August. Before the introduction of convoy, ships were being slaughtered at anything up to 300 miles out in the Atlantic.”

One of the results of this system was that the submarine w'as forced to rely upon the torpedo, which is in itself a far more uncertain weapon of attack than is generally realized.

Let me quote an expert on this point :

“Committed to underwater attack, a submarine’s prospect of reaching a torpedo-firing position becomes remote. She has to submerge many miles from her prey to avoid being sighted, and w-hen once submerged, she has relatively poor mobility. If sighted on the surface before diving, her attack can easily be rendered abortive by alterations of course. The inability of submarines, after convoy and group sailing were instituted, to locate and successfully attack merchant vessels in the open sea, forced enemy submarines to operate at points of convergence near our coast where surface craft levied a heavy toll.”

Howrever, in addition to convoy—which it is to be hoped

that the Admiralty would immediately adopt on the out-

break of war—there is also the hydrophone to consider,

which makes it possible for submarines to be detected at a

great distance under water. A submarine under water, as

we have observed, can only travel at a relatively slow speed,

so that when detected by means of the hydrophone it is an

easy matter for ships to change their course. The seas are so

vast that evasion is relatively easy, except at vital points

Continued on page 46

Continued from page 11

where narrow straits are to be passed, or generally speaking, in the vicinity of ports. But in these places it is not difficult to arrange for a number of small ships, equipped with depth charges and hydrophones, to detect and, if possible, sink the attacking submarine.

I am informed that swift steam trawlers are adequate for this purpose, so that at the outbreak of war—or prior to this—a great number of such small vessels could be quickly prepared. True, we must not forget the possibility of inventing noiseless engines to evade the hydrophones, but at the moment this has not been done, and therefore it is an invention which cannot be definitely taken into consideration.

It would be foolish to ignore the submarine menace entirely—to deny, for example, that British trade in Mediterranean waters would be in danger. But we must not overestimate the dangers by misreading the lessons of the World War. That is all I am pleading for. We must not consider the geographical position alone. And even the geographical position is not so important as the Liddell Hart school maintains, since the submarine can keep out to sea for long periods when once clear of the harbors. So that the handicap in the case of Germany was not so great as he makes out.

Summing up this section of the argument —and you will not forget that I humbly admitted my impudence and ignorance at the beginning of the chapter—it seems to me that the intelligent layman, if he goes direct to his sources, will arrive at the conclusion that though the British Navy may be endangered by the submarine, the danger is by no means likely to be mortal.

Cheating the Bomber

NOW LET US consider the next batch of naval Jonahs—the school which maintains that navies can be blown to smithereens from the air.

I need hardly remind the reader that this is a school of thought which made an instant appeal to me. Being of an imaginative and highly-strung nature, inclined to rush my fences, I approached this problem, at the outset, with very definite and very highly colored prejudices. It would be positively painful to describe how these prejudices were shattered, one by one, remorselessly, by the cold bombardment of facts with which the experts presented me.

These facts boil down to one—that bombardment from the air on to moving objects at sea is, and must always be, a game of chance, in which the difference between success and failure is determined only by a fluke or a series of flukes. And the reason for this uncertainty is inherent in the unchangeable nature of the elements.

We may sum it up as follows:

1. The pilot has no sure means of gauging his speed or direction if he is not in sight of some stationary object, unless, of course, he can obtain information by directional wireless, or make astronomical observations— neither of which aids would be available in the heat of battle. This is due to the fact that an airplane encounters only such airresistance as is made by her own engines. Being free from land, or from any stationary objects, she floats in the air element, part and parcel of it.. Supposing she has a speed capacity of 100 miles an hour, her flight, as measured by the land below, may be 80 miles an hour, if she is fighting a twenty-mile an hour wind, or 120 miles an hour if the wind is behind her. But it is all the same, as far as the pilot can judge. The landsmen may see an airplane in a gale and think she is having a thin time of it, “riding the storm.” This is a landsman’s illusion. The pilot does not feel the gale, and can only gauge it very roughly indeed. These are facts which are borne out in countless aerial logs.

Therefore, no pilot can ever reach a

certain position from which to aim, as long as the air is the air. and the sea is the sea. He is like a man trying to shoot partridges from a motor car whose speed varies violently at every ten yards.

2. The bomb itself is equally volatile. Most amateurs’ knowledge of bombing ships is confined either to their own imagination or to the remembrance of one or two films, where a handsome pilot swoops out of the air, with a “roar” of engines, skims over a deck and drops a bomb which wreaks its deadly work on the wicked captain and the hirsute crew. He does not realize that endless rehearsals were necessary for this conjunction—that even when the stage captain did his utmost to be hit, and manoeuvred his vessel, time and again, by megaphone, into the airplane’s course, and even when the smoke bombs were ready to explode, in case the airplane came near enough to “fake” a hit, there were so many misses that the director swore about the expense of it all.

For we have to remember, as Neon has explained, once and for all, that the fall of a bomb is regulated not only by its own weight and the speed at which the airplane is travelling, but by the angle of the machine and the strength of the wind. In other words, we arrive at the conclusion that a pilot has to juggle with five separate factors:

1. Wind strength

2. Altitude

3. Speed through space

4. Actual direction relative to target

and wind

5. Angle of flight

All these things, remember, in addition to anti-aircraft !

Is it therefore to be wondered that so little damage, comparatively, was done to fleets by aircraft during the Great War? And is it to be feared that in the next war they will do so very much more?

These facts do not in any way invalidate the lessons which I have drawn, in preceding chapters, concerning the real menace and horror of aerial bombing of towns. For one thing, the argument that an airplane cannot determine its position is obviously inapplicable, for the simple reason that the aviator is circling over a fixed object. For another, a hit or a miss is, in the bombardment of a town like London, almost equally valuable. True, the target may be Whitehall, but even if the bomb goes as far afield as Piccadilly Circus, it can hardly be said to have been useless. A certain number of bombs might fall in the Thames or in Hyde Park, "but the area covered by water or park-land in London is a very minor proportion of the vast space of crowded streets which remains open for attack. Again, any bomb on land is injections, whereas any bomb at sea is sterile, unless it makes a direct hit. By “infectious”

I mean, of course, that it causes fire which spreads, or gas which is caught in innumerable pockets. A bomb dropped in the water does little damage except to the fishes in the immediate vicinity. I am also informed that there is very little danger from gas at sea, for reasons which seem almost too obvious to enumerate.

Japan Eyes Hong Kong

V\7TS NOW COME to the third scare of Vv naval Jonahs—Japan. This is

really the only other navy, apart from that of the U. S. A., which we need fear singly. A war between the U. S. A. and the British Empire is not unthinkable, it is true— nothing is unthinkable in the hideous state of world politics—but it is happily more remote. And it might, in my opinion, be actually less appalling a world prospect than war between the British Empire and Japan—partly because of the comparative level-headedness of both parties to the dispute, but principally because of the chaos which an Anglo-Japanese war would cause in the East. It is to the East that our eyes

instinctively wander when we consider this question. And as our eyes wander there, they rest at once on Singapore.

It is not my intention to enter the already crowded lists of those who argue concerning the respective merits of Singapore and Hong Kong as naval bases. It is enough for the average layman to look up these places on the map, and to realize their relative positions with regard, not only to Japan, but to Australia. Australia is the forbidden paradise which the Japanese covet.

Well, what happens to the British navy if the Japanese pick a quarrel in, let us say. the internal affairs of China, and declare war on England, when our’ fleet is 12,000 miles away? For a very ingenious and illuminating answer to this question the reader would do well to study a book called Navies of Today and Tomorrow, by Captain Bernard Ackworth. Captain Ackworth taught me more about the naval aspect of the next war than any of the other prophets. He may be wrong, or officially discredited, for all I know, but at least it seems difficult to pick a hole in the following argument.

Japan would naturally choose a moment for declaring war when the British fleet is in the Mediterranean. Her first objective would certainly be Hong Kong. Those who imagine that she would begin by attacking Australia, thousands of miles from her basesemdash;a continent requiring vast forces to holdemdash;underrate the Japanese intelligence as gravely as those who maintain that she would attack Singapore. Why should she go 3,000 miles to a highly fortified base of minor importance when she need go only 1,000 miles to a comparatively meagrely fortified base of supreme importance?

Assuming then that Hong Kong is attacked and falls, as it well might, long before the British fleet has time to reach it, Japan would have no great difficulty in fortifying it, and holding it, even if she decided to withdraw her main fleet to her home waters. The British, on the other hand, would be faced with appalling difficulties in their endeavor to recapture Hong Kong. They would, in fact, be faced with a long war, of uncertain issue, and gigantic cost, for in the meantime Japanese cruisers would be in a position to devastate our trade tliroughout the Far East.

It would need half a book to develop these arguments at full length. If I developed them, I could probably be sued for breach of copyright. If I skimped them, I should be doing the Ackworth school an injustice. I will therefore leave them and ask you to study this book yourself.

However, there is one reflection here, arising out of these points, which I cannot refrain from publishing. It is this, that the more one studies British naval policy, the more one is struck by the almost unbelievable waste which results from the Admiralty’s decisions. I said that I had no intention of entering the lists of those who argue concerning the merits of Singapore. But unless these things are so unutterably mysterious to the layman that black looks white, and vice versa, it would seem that Singapore was one of the costliest and most obvious mistakes which we have ever made.

I believe the Admiralty officials realize this, by now, but will not admit it.

Is it too much to suggest that possibly the cheerful sound of grinding axes may echo even down the immaculate corridors of the British and Japanese Admiralties?

We can now leave this section of our examination, with the feeling that though the British navy is by no means in danger of immediate extinction, even in a struggle

with our most powerful naval rival, yet the odds are not so strongly in our favor as to justify complete confidence.

In the next and last section, our confidence will be still more gravely shaken.



I EKE Ib 1 HE REASON for our fears. A very simple table of statistics, at which we can glance, remembering that the British navy runs on oil, and not coal. The world production of petroleum is as follows:*

United States............. 845,803

Russia................... 157,000

Venezuela................ 116,100

Roumania................ 47,000

Persia.................... 45,500

Dutch East Indies......... 39,000

Mexico................... 34,000

Colombia................. 16,790

Peru..................... 11,500

Argentina................. 10,000

Poland................... 4,400

Japan.................... 2,000

Ecuador.................. 1,700

Germany................. 1,200

Iraq...................... 800

Other countries............ 900

British Empire:

Trinidad.................. 10,000

India..................... 8,000

Sarawak.................. 5,000

Egypt.................... 1,800

Canada................... 1,700

Those figures are, to say the least of it, illuminating. The interested reader, who cares to play with the idea of war with America, will note that America controls roughly seventy-six per cent of the world’s oil production as compared with our approximate 1 4/5 per cent.

You can’t run oil-burning warships without oil any more than you can sail trawlers without sails. The idea of the complete immobility of the British navy in the event of war with Americaemdash;-or in the event of a hostile America-emdash;is so strange and fantastic that the layman finds it difficult tç grasp. Yet it must be grasped. And it seem« to me in essence, as sinister as any of the wild imaginings with which I began this chapter, as lurid as any “H. G. Wells fantasy” of a vast battle fleet being bombed out of existence by an air fleet.

“Does not such a position,” says Ackworth, “place our friends in America in a position to dictate our naval policy, and indeed forcibly to keep, or to break, the peace of the world, for all countries except America are now dependent on foreigners for the movement of their ships? Here is a bondage indeed for the necessarily greatest seapower! No words, no Kellogg Pact, no sentiment, no sophistry can alter the indisputable fact of our present bondage !”

It may be a staunch Imperialist who wrote those words, but they are obviously capable of adaptation to my pacifist argument that this country may be navally indefensible in the event of war. For it is an acknowledged fact, in the Admiralty, that the British navy is no longer in a position to engage in any lengthy conflict, unless supplied by America. The oil supply under British command would only last six weeks at the outside.

Oil seems a small detail, when you think of the vast organization of the British navy. But then, we are living in a mechanical age, where details are of vital importance. A single defective screw may bring destruction to a great machine and death to multitudes.

One hears vague rumors that an adequate supply of oil can now be obtained from coal. If these rumors are correct, we can still thank God we have a navy, although a sudden immense consumption of coal for naval purposes would obviously play havoc

*Statesman’s Year Book for 1932. Figures represent 1,000 barrels.


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with our industrial life. If they are incorrect, we have not much to be thankful for. 1 think it is the duty of the British Admiralty to set our fears at rest.

We therefore end on a note of interroga! lion. If our oil supply is assured, we can j presumably protect our trade and repel : invasion by sea and land, though obviously we are still vulnerable from the air. If it is not . . .

History’s Evil Lie

IT IS NOW necessary to remind the reader that we are at the end of the argument, which Ijas dealt mainly with methods of defense and their futility.

I should be the last person to claim that 1 have examined all the evidence. That would be the work of a lifetime, and no student of international affairs who is a preacher as well as a prophet can afford to give to this study his life’s endeavor, because he is so convinced of the urgency of the danger that he feels impelled to deliver his message before the flames have broken out.

All the same, I think it may be claimed, firstly, that we have done something to show the power of the offensive arm. and secondly that we have done something to show the weakness of the defensive arm. By steps which may have stumbled but have at least

been honest, we have reached the conclusion that another great war would almost certainly result in the extinction of tens of millions of Europe's civilian population, by gas, by death from the air, by starvation or by disease. We have suggested— not without expert corroboration—that no amount of war "preparation,” short of covering a whole country with a roof of steel, will be of any avail against the Furies that are straining at the leash. We have decided that such futile "preparations” as we and other nations arcmaking, are only likely to make it moredifficult to hold that leash, are only likely to act as irritants—that nothing will save civilization if war breaks out.

To sum up, it is to be hoped that we have exposed the most evil and obscene lie of the world’s history: Si vis pacem, para bellum . . . A lie whose utterance should be made a criminal offense in all countries with a pretense to culture, or even to sanity.

It seems a hopeless situation. And it is certainly time that we had a change and got on the next article, in which we shall consider some of the efforts the world is making for peace.

Let us therefore take the first train to Geneva, to the City of Hope, and see what awaits us there.

To be continued