LONDON LETTER Beverley Baxter's
Sea Power Needs Air Power
LONDON, Feb. 21 (By Cable). One day during the battle of Britain I was in a Southampton hotel when the BBC six o’clock news bulletin began to disturb the peaceful atmosphere of the lounge. There were a dozen or so naval officers there with that calm imperturbable look that seems inseparable from men who traverse the seas. Suddenly the well-groomed voice of the announcer almost rose half a note with as near an approach to excitement as BBC announcers ever attain.
The news was startling, sickening. The British Fleet had opened fire on French ships at Oran. To me it was the most tragic news of the war. The unthinkable had happened, British shells were killing French sailors. I looked at the naval officers who had crowded around the wireless set. Their eyes were shining with excitement, their voices made a running commentary on the news. When the announcer finished a cruiser captain looked around at others. “That’s the stuff,” he said. The others agreed. Then the storm collapsed, they went back to their whiskies or to reading Punch, and calm reigned over the lounge once more.
There has never been a story to equal the endurance and exploits of the British Navy in this war. The strain put upon ships and personnel, the frightful odds against them, the lack of rest and the methods employed by the enemy had driven the usual chivalry of the sea from their hearts. All that those officers at Southampton saw was that French ships which should have joined us, and might be used by the enemy, were being battered into helplessness. They were in no mood to see the human tragedy behind the grim necessity of it all.
Nearly two years later on the day that the Scharnhorst, Gneiserum and Prince Eugen escaped from Brest I went to see the First Lord of the Admiralty. A. V. Alexander has been a political friend for years, and he shrugged his shoulders with a gesture that meant more than words.
“There’s just a chance, but only a chance,” he said, “that one of the ships was sunk but it’s not likely.”
He is a sturdy, pugnacious figure with a jaw that protrudes when angry, and a voice which could be heard above a gale. Like all ministers in a wartime government his own destiny depends on what happens in the clash with the enemy. This exploit of the Germans, following so quickly upon the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales by the Japanese, was a discouragement that would test the heart of any man or any matron.
“The first I heard of the Germans being out was at eleven o’clock this morning,” he said. “Three hours of daylight and they weren’t
spotted until eleven o’clock.”
I asked him the reason.
“Bad visibility,” he said. “Bad luck—what can one say?”
Then he frowned and the famous jaw protruded slightly. “Reconnaissance over the sea,” he said, “is a far different proposition from reconnaissance over land. It is a specialized job. You try, without proper training, to identify a ship from the air. To say whether it is a destroyer or a battleship or what class it is.”
I thought of my flight across the ocean in the Clipper where the sea looked like inked paper and the heavy waves seemed merely wrinkles on the dark surface; then I asked him the obvious: “Why doesn’t the Navy have its own complete Air Force?”
He growled but said nothing. For twenty months he has wanted that.
The First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, came in. Tall, good-looking, calm until you saw his eyes, the head of the British Navy had endured the intolerable insult of a German Flotilla daring to sail into the Strait of Dover without paying the penalty. Alexander looked at him with real affection in his eyes. “The First Sea Lord,” he said to me, “has been my friend and mainstay right through.” They had been comrades in success, comrades in disaster and they made a strange contrast. The politician was boiling inside. He saw the whole Scharnhorst episode with its repercussions on home and world opinion. The sailor saw it as an affair between two navies, and was keeping cool. There would come another day.
The Human Factor
1HAVE described those two episodes, the scene at Southampton and the incident at the Admiralty, because they humanize the grim but glorious story of the British Navy in the present war. In the end all wars are decided by the human factor, and to understand what the British Navy has done and has been unable to do in the present struggle, one must note how politics and personalities have played their part.
When the war of 1914 broke out this was the situation. Great Britain with her own fleet was stronger than the Germans in every department except armor. The French Navy was also strong and when Italy came into the war the Mediterranean was truly a lake belonging to the Allies. In the Far East Japan, then an ally, patrolled the Pacific and cleaned out German outposts there. When eventually the United States came in we had five navies operating against the enemy. Yet in the spring of 1917, despite this immense numerical advantage and the possession of Irish ports, Britain was brought within an ace of starvation by a submarine campaign that took a toll of our shipping which has never been reached in the worst weeks of this war.
Contrast all this with what Britain had to face in the first year of the present war and since.
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By a spiritual bewilderment which will astonish future historians the mighty republic of the U.S.A. and the seagirt United Kingdom spent the years after 1918 in persuading each other to cut down their navies. By no stretch of the imagination could the U.S. and Britain ever be enemies. They had common interests as well as a spiritual alliance, but both Washington and London failed to see that every U.S. warship was additional strength to Britain, while every new British worship was a further guarantee of American security.
To achieve the consummation so much desired, ships were actually broken up while building programs were curtailed and in some cases cancelled altogether.
Britain went farther than that; she not only scrapped ships but appointed a committee to do away with “redundant shipyards.” Irony can go no farther. These yards
admittedly were not the best in the country, and were more concerned with mercantile ships than warships, but they were a vital potential reserve for war, and the skill of the workers could never be replaced. But under the influence of Anglo-American dementia and the competition of state-subsidized foreign shipping these yards came under the hammer. Workers and sailors of the mercantile marine walked the weary heartbreak path from one labor exchange to another. Our cargo ships like the Navy itself were a dwindling commodity.
It must not be thought that no voices were raised in protest. Lord Lloyd stumped the country foretelling the dangers ahead and others did the same. But vision of eternal peace had softened the intellectual fibre of the men in government. Repercussion on the personnel of the Navy was automatic. Officers were axed almost before their careers
were begun. They had devoted their lives from thirteen years of age to the profession of the sea, and at about forty, or younger, they were thrown on the land as a fisherman will throw his catch when the boat comes in. Naval officers were cheap those days, you could pick them up as golf secretaries, club officials and private secretaries for next to nothing. And what was happening to officers applied to ordinary ratings who had to seek a livelihood on shore to augment their meagre pensions. That was one of the worst periods in the whole confused interval between the two wars.
In fairness, though not justification, it must be remembered that Britain, as victor, was trying to cure the world of the will to war by reducing her armament to a point that no other nation would fear her. Thus, thought idealists, the nations of Europe would have faith in the future and put away their lethal weapons. Fortunately Chamberlain reversed the policy in 1935 as far, or nearly as far, as he could. As the Hitler menace grew so the Washington agreement and other understandings were scrapped or honored more in breach than in observance. But we had not the men to build enough ships or yards to do it in.
THUS WHEN war came in 1939 the known situation was as follows, although it was feared both Germany and Japan had achieved secret building in contravention of their signed agreements. Britain had twelve battleships, France five, Japan nine, Italy four, the U.S.A. fifteen, Germany none—although her 10,000-ton pocket battleships had a fighting capacity which made them an ugly proposition. Britain had seven aircraft carriers, France two, Japan six, the United States three. Neither Germany nor Italy had any of this class of ship as their aerial fighting would be done from land airdromes. Britain had in eight-inch and six-inch gun cruisers sixty, France eighteen, Japan thirtyfive, Italy twenty-one, the U. S. A. thirty-one, Germany six. In the all im -portant department of destroyers Britain hadonehundredandfifty-nine, France fifty-nine, Italy forty-eight, Japan sixty-six, Germany fourteen, the U.S. forty-five, not counting her old ones. In submarines Britain had forty-six, Japan forty-four, France seventy-eight, Italy seventy-nine, Germany twenty-four, the U.S. twenty-seven. For purposes of space I shall not enumerate the escort vessels and antisubmarine ships except to note that the strength of Italy in this regard was approximately equal to that of Britain.
On paper all this did not look so bad. Germany was obviously not strong enough to fight a naval action, as she did at Jutland last time, and would be confined on the surface to raiding, while the French Navy co-operating with our Mediterranean fleet would far more than hold Italy if that nation decided to take the plunge. The figures, however, have to be judged in relation to the new character of the war. Not only were we hopelessly short of destroyers,
compared to 1914-1918, but the problem of convoys had been doubled and trebled by the introduction of the airplane, new devices in mines and the neutrality of De Valera which robbed us of vital Irish ports.
The story of the British destroyers can hardly have any equal in the history of the sea. There was no rest for ship or men. They would come into port for a few hours then leave at once with no chance for crews to see families, no opportunity to recondition ship. In the summer of 1940 I went on board a destroyer which had limped into port after six months incessant duty. It could go the pace no longer and had to come under repair. Its condition was indescribable. It was almost like a ghost ship and it seemed a fitting commentary that nearly everyone on board had grown a beard.
But whatever our problems had been at the beginning of the war the whole picture took a calamitous turn when France collapsed and surrendered. The first great blunder of the Allies had been their failure to deal with Italy, the false neutral. In 1939 there were powerful voices that urged both Chamberlain and Daladier to send an ultimatum to Italy demanding she should declare her attitude at once: either she must come in with Germany, or, if she announced a policy of neutrality, her fleet should be given up and impounded in allied ports asaguarantee. Such a move would have galvanized the whole tempo of the Allied war effort and must have had profound effect on future events. It was fear of world opinion, especially American opinion, that held the Allies back. We can see now that Italy could have been pounded into surrender, or at any rate her ships been destroyed. My own impression is she would have given up her fleet and protested to the world.
But we didn’t do it and the harvest of that indecision on the part of the Allies came in the summer of 1940, when Britain found herself alone facing these odds—the German fleet and the Italian fleet plus the potential threat of the French and Japanese fleets, with Russia as an apparent friend of Germany. Do you wonder that the officers cheered at Southampton when they heard that we had fired on the French ships at Oran? The odds against Britain had become fantastic, yet the spirits of the men of the British Navy were never higher than when they faced this ring of enemies alone.
THE BATTLE of the Atlantic like the Battle of Britain was all-important. If Germany had won either of them the war would have ended. The British had perfected their submarine-detection device, but with some misgivings gave the secret to the French in 1939. The Germans had never been able to solve this, but when France collapsed the enemy secured the full information they desired so much. Once they knew how our destroyers detected their submarines they were able to take measures against it. Thus the British Navy found itself in almost the same position as in 1916.
But German science had other devilments in its armory. With a fanfare of trumpets Hitler announced a secret weapon which could be used against Britain and could not be used against Germany. That was the magnetic mine. I remember so vividly the wild storms that were sweeping the coast during the week end the magnetic mines were launched. The havoc was terrible. Among other ships the Simon Bolivar went down with many women and children. In one British harbor three magnetic mines were dropped and three ships blowm sky high. The British, always better improvisers than planners, grappled with the new menace and in a few weeks had it under control, but the acoustic mine was to follow, and other weird Satanic variations. The British Navy subdued the menace of each one and brought it under reasonable control. These mines have never been completely eliminated, but they were not the decisive factor which Hitler hoped they would be.
In the meantime the approaches to the British Isles had become a deadly watery battlefield. The shelf of the Irish coast extends three hundred miles out into the Atlantic and U-boats used the submerged shelf as a resting place from which to watch for convoys. The banning of the Irish ports made all the difference. In the last war I remember so well how the Olympic, which was carrying some 5,000 of us Canadians to England, was intercepted by submarines and sought refuge for two days in Lough Swilly. Had that harbor been denied to us the Olympic might well have met an evil fate like the Empress of Britain last year. Thousands of British sailors and scores of ships have gone to their doom because of Britain’s inability to use the Irish ports. The loan of fifty old American destroyers was of decisive importance. Gradually German submarines were driven farther and farther out into the Atlantic. Britain was winning a costly and terrible fight, but she was winning. Too slowly, however, the official British mind had grasped the menace of the airplane at sea. Hitlerstruck with his special long-range bombers and the harassed mariners of England had to face the terror of the skies.
Air Power Need
I MENTIONED the Empress of Britain. It was a scandal that she should have been sunk so close to
these shores. The Navy had its own Air Arm, that is airplanes which travel on carriers, but the Navy never had and still has not got a full Air Force. After a terrific struggle a year or so ago the Navy secured control of the coastal Air Arm. Always late the British began to get the measure of the threat to shipping from the air. But the stubborn British disinclination to change still keeps the Navy as a beggar at the table of the Air Ministry.
At Taranto the Navy smashed the Italian fleet lying there at anchor by the use of air-borne torpedoes. It was the most brilliant innovation of the war, and swept away all existing theories of protecting ships in harbor. Unhappily the lesson of Taranto was left for the enemy to exploit. The Japanese concentrated on aerial torpedoes. One sequel to Taranto was Pearl Harbor, another was the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off Malaya. Just as with the tank, we invented and then tired of the idea like a child with a new toy.
When Scharnhorst and her sister ships sailed into the Strait of Dover they were guarded by a huge umbrella of fighters and bombers based on French airdromes. Against them were flung our Swordfish bombers, slow and armed with light bombs. Pilots went smiling to their deaths for not one Swordfish came back from the inferno. The German ships were struck, for nothing could keep our airmen back, but they did not have the torpedoes which we had given to the strategy of war.
That in part is the story of the British Navy in this war—stirring, magnificent, heartbreaking. But perhaps the lessons of the victory at Taranto and the disasters in the Pacific will be learned now. The Navy is no longer something that merely sails the seas. It must have its complete Air Force, trained only for sea warfare, for sea reconnaissance, for sea co-operation and for sea offence. If that lesson has been really learned the shipyards of Britain, Canada and the U.S.A. can create such an armada that the sea routes will once more become the open roads that they have so long been.
Sea power will win the war but not unless we realize that sea power can only be maintained by carrying the White Ensign into the skies with airplanes that never cease their vigil and are ready to strike like the lightning that is their companion in the clouds.