Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dreaming of Cavalry, IV: Death Ride of the Battlecruisers

Wait. Jutland? What does a naval battle have to do with the Battle of France? Or the Somme, for that matter. And for such an anticlimactic battle on top of it? (Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan? Hopefully you won't miss the point of the reference, like these guys did.)

It gets worse, though. I've babbled about London as a fortress/electric city, about the location of RFC/RAF bases on commuter lines, about broaching and forging shells. I see a connection. Can I communicated it? Probably not. The sand bars have piled too high on the eastern shore of the North Sea, and this post will ship too much water to get across and home safe to haven.

The obvious connection between Jutland and the Somme is that they happened close to each other. The German guns opened on the ring forts of Verdun on 21 February, 1916 as the forlorn hopes of the Crown Prince of Prussia's army left their trenches. The Trommelfeuer opened on the Somme on Midsummer's Day, a week before the general assault on Dominion Day, 1 July 1916, although the Canadians were still on their way, and it was left for the Newfoundland Regiment to represent the modern nation in the Passion of Empire, their past as well as their future. (Link to an odd bit of Newfoundland history that deserves more attention.) Between them, on 31 May 1916, came that oddly unsatisfying battle.

Since so much has been written about the Battle of Jutland, I'll start by laying out what matters to me about the battle.

Concept: Both navies held to an attritional concept of gunnery action. Warships fired, hit, and smashed each other's hulls. Water got in. The first ship to get more water in it than it had buoyancy, sank. Putting armour on ships slowed this process down, but never prevented it, not even if all the armour was thick enough to defeat all the shells that hit. Being hit by shells is bad for ships, and even small shells will sink big ships eventually. (Ignore the part about aerial torpedoes; they were just the coup de grace. Unsurprisingly, the sixty-year-old book that goes on and on about battleship designers worrying about this is not available online.) So armour's main advantage is that it keeps a warship in the fight longer. If you sacrificed armour for other ship functions such as speed, it was because these virtues were more important than staying power, not because you seriously intended to build a warship that couldn't fight. The caveat here is that you might want to reorganise armour and other aspects of ship architecture to keep key systems such as propellant magazines and machinery under increased armour protection. As of 1914, it had not occurred to designers that main gun mountings such as turrets could be protected in this manner. Instead, they attempted to distribute guns in the largest possible number of widely distributed turrets. I won't dwell on the error, just point out that designers expected turrets to be penetrated.

German Operational Plan: the German CinC, Admiral Scheer, decided to take his fleet out because it now looked like the Germans were going to have to take the full brunt of an offensive by the Kitchener armies. The navy would do its best to take the pressure off the army by looking for the British, fighting them, and giving them a bloody nose. After all, at the very least, if British industry was busy making replacement shells and fixing battleships, it would be making fewer shells for the land battle!

It was Scheer's plan, and requires some consideration. His fleet was smaller, so why did he think that he could win? He could hardly win a stand-up battle. Some people (usual suspect) have come close to convincing themselves that German technology was so much better than British that it was actually a near run thing, but Scheer's subordinate and rival, Franz v. Hipper, thought that German naval materiel was inferior to British, so that he would be at an even greater disadvantage (esp. 19ff.) Blah blah procurement politics/who gets a job at Krupp when he retires. The point of this is that those disposed to be critical are always inclined to think that their national technology is inferior.

So why did Scheer come out? He had the advantage of choosing his time and seizing the initiative, and those could be huge force multipliers in naval battles. Specifically, Scheer might catch the British fleet in detachments, and would certainly have a gunnery advantage. That was because he could choose the time of the battle. An afternoon battle in prevailing westerlies would silhouette the British against the setting sun and blow their smoke in front of them. The Germans would score many more hits than the British, and then they could escape after dark.

British Operational Plan: The assumption is that the British will have the advantage and that they will engage "an enemy then flying." So the British had to hunt the enemy down and then shoot them a lot to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity. It would be well-advised to focus on ships with lots of guns at the expense of armour, and to make them fast, for better scouting: hence ...the armoured cruisers. Although because we hate Admiral Fisher, we sometimes pretend that he invented the idea and that he was stupid and wrong.

The Battle:

Scheer came out. Despite radio silence, stray wireless intercepts told the British about it. Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty led a fast division of battlecruisers, plus a division of fast battleships, out to find the Germans. He found Vice-Admiral Hipper's fast division. This had happened before. Last time, Hipper was out on his own, and Beatty didn't sink anywhere near as many ships as he thought that he could have, because for various reasons the pursuit wasn't pressed as hard as it could have been. People learn from their mistakes. Beatty's subordinate commanding the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, Rear-Admiral Goodenough, had been criticised in the last battle for not sending in prompt sighting responses. This time around, he would press his reconnaissance and practically sit on his radio, virtually the only commander to do so. As this example suggests, Beatty was eager to learn his lesson, and pressed the pursuit hard. John Brooks suggests, too hard. Also, mistakes were made. Then Beatty found the rest of the Germans. He turned round and ran towards the main body of the British fleet, commanded by Admiral Jellicoe. Scheer followed. He ran into Jellicoe. The battleships of the German van got a bit of a pounding, but fortunately, and not surprisingly, this not exactly being a hard to foresee outcome, they were the most heavily armoured German ships, and could take it. Some jigging about occurred, at the end of which Scheer sent off his fast division of battlecruisers, cruisers and destroyers on a "Death Ride" against the British. The link is especially romantic and everything considering that some of the German battlecruisers were named after famous Prussian cavalry commanders. He broke contact. The Germans went home.

The Reckoning:

For the Germans, the attritional model was reality. It's a little hard to make out total number of hits per ship in these sources, but naval technology historian John Campbell's exhaustive analysis of damage inflicted on the German fleet during the battle shows that battlecruisers Lützow took 24 heavy caliber hits and sank on the way home; Seydlitz took 21 hits and a relatively ineffective torpedo, and had trouble getting home; Derfflinger  took 17 hits and was out of action for a while; heavily armoured van division battleship Großer Kurfürst was in a similar state after taking 8 hits; battlecruisers Von der Tann and Moltke were both hit four times and took serious but impairing but not ultimately serious damage. Battleships Kӧnig and Markgraf took 4 hits each and were moderately damaged. The threshold of at least 24 heavy caliber hits being required to sink a modern capital ship is vindicated by the example of several British ships that took more than 20 hits without being seriously endangered. The model breaks down a little in that Kӧnig was in a serious situation at the end of the battle, but this was because it shipped 1800 tons of water after a 15" shell hit it in the main belt and sprang the plate without penetrating. This is either a bit of a naval architectural booboo or the expected result of being hit by a 15" shell. It's certainly not reasonable to expect a 15" shell to penetrate 14" armour at almost 20,000 yards.

For the British, the attritional model did not work. No fewer than three of the battlecruisers engaged were destroyed by between 5 and 7 hits from 11" and 12" shells. And so British commentators dived into their navels and are apparently still down there looking for their pens . (Obligatory Community link.)

Which is crazy. The lost battlecruisers were all sunk by magazine fires. Shell propellant is by design quite flammable, and the risk of magazine fires has been known for centuries. In a steel ship with good firefighting capabilities the risk is that the fire will evolve so much gas that venting provisions are overwhelmed and a build up of pressure will break a main structural member, causing the hull to disintegrate with a consequent spectacular release of flaming gas. (That is, the ship will "explode.") As I say, the risk was perfectly well understood. There have been many magazine fires in warships over the years. Most don't sink ships. Capital ships tend to be more at risk because of the amount of propellant stored within particularly well-armoured, hence ill-vent, ships.

But that's not really an explanation. The postmortem carried out at Scapa Flow over the next few weeks provided one. Under institutional pressure to develop the most rapid rate of fire possible, the Grand Fleet had developed an appalling institutional neglect of safe handling protocols. There was far too much ammunition in the turrets and the working chambers below the turrets; cans of primer were opened in the magazines and then manhandled to the turrets, leaving trails for flash to follow; and in at least two of the destroyed ships, anti-flash flaps probably had been removed. It's an old story that will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an industrial setting.

Only, sometimes the employer gets caught out, and it's very embarrassing. Now, it's not like this is a secret. The results of the inquiry were published in the official history, although for whatever reason the "outcome" section of the Battle of Jutland narrative was published in the next volume after the account of the battle itself, a particularly boring volume. (Contrary to myth, the Germans came out twice in the summer of 1916, and the Grand Fleet failed to intercept them both times, so this one is devoted to explaining why nothing happened. If I recall correctly, the volume was also by poet Henry Newbolt, rather than naval strategist Julian Corbett, ,and so lacks name appeal.) And if that weren't enough, Andrew Lambert republished the findings in1998, basically because everyone had been ignoring them for 70 years.

There's something going on here. In Campbell's analysis of the damage, he sums up every description of every German magazine fire at Jutland (there were a fair number) by asserting that had German charges been like British, the German ship would have been lost. Now, this might have been true, since masses of exposed German charges were, in the aggregate, less likely to catch fire than British because some of the charge was in a brass case that inhibited flash ignition better than the silk bags used for all British charges and some German. No-one is helped by generations of chemical ignorance that posits that British cordite was somehow "explosive" in a sense in which German was not, or that it became "explosive" as it became unstable, these being two different concepts. Still, I think the frequency of repetition suggests Campbell's discomfort. Campbell is in the tank for the British naval-industrial complex, just like me, and this is a distinctly embarrassing institutional failure.

But it's nothing compared to this nonsense, lifted directly from Wikipedia (because it's okay when I do it):

"The official British Admiralty examination of the Grand Fleet's performance recognised [a major problem]: British armour-piercing shells exploded outside the German armour rather than penetrating and exploding within. As a result, some German ships with only 8 in (20 cm)-thick armour survived hits from 15-inch (381 mm) shells. Had these shells penetrated through the armour and then exploded, German losses would probably have been far greater."

Now, this isn't nonsense in the sense that some British shells performed badly. It's hard to have 100% compliance with single-use munitions intended to perform under conditions quite this extreme. Remember, that's being stopped dead or nearly so from an initial velocity of over 2000 feet/second, this deceleration causing the ignition of a fuze that in turn detonates an explosive filler either before the shell breaks up on encountering impenetrable armour or after piercing the armour and fully entering the protected compartment. It's nonsense in the sense that there were any German ships that could have been sunk by better shell performance except for Seydlitz. 

One can see where such nonsense would originate. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the British thought that their guns had hit many more times than they, in fact, had. That's a reasonable impression to have, and the battlecruisers in particular had no idea just how bad their shooting had been, probably because of poor visibility more than lack of recent refresher training. Then they heard from Admiral Scheer. Here's an extract of the first paragraph of the "aftermath" chapter from his 1920 memoirs, which I take to be a version of his preliminary report. I've highlighted his claims that the battleships suffered no significant damage. A reasonable direction to take at the time, rather less defensible to republish in 1920:

Though they had been under such heavy fire, very little external damage on the ships was apparent; none keeled over or showed an increased draught. On a closer inspection, however, considerable damage was disclosed, but the armour-plating had so thoroughly served its purpose of protecting the vital parts of the ships that their navigating capabilities had not suffered. The König and Grosser Kurfürst went into dock as their anchor cables had been shot away. .

I've deliberately omitted the comments in the same section alleging that the picric-acid charged British shells blew up unimpressively and prematurely. Again, it's not necessarily wrong in the sense that many of the shells that did hit could have done more damage, even if it is overstated. It's just wrong in the sense that it contradicts the attritional story. At this late date, after two world wars and a Russo-Japanese conflict, there is no particular reason to doubt the attritional account except for the British battlecruisers. The virtually unarmoured 10,000 ton heavy cruiser San Francisco took 45 hits, including 14" shells from Kirishima, and survived the Battle of Guadalcanal. HMS Exeter, similar to San Francisco but even smaller, took 7 11" shells at the Battle of the River Plate, more damage than any of the battlecruisers blown up at Jutland. I could go on. The reason is simple. Shells tend to hit above water, so the resulting holes don't let much water in. They're not useless, being very good at inflicting mission kill, but the sinking rate is going to be disappointing if the victim ships manage to escape action under their own power.

But look what Scheer did accomplish: "A preliminary fight between cruisers lasting about two hours, which proved the superiority of our guns." If you've read the technical chapters that Brassey's Naval Annual published before the world war, you will be up to date with the technical argument about whether German or British guns were better, and, in particular, the spectacularly disingenuous way in which it was argued that the German 11"/50 and 12"/50  were better than the British 13.5"/45 that armed Lion, Tiger, Princess Royal, and Queen Mary. The authors are unsparing in their dissection of the argument, which, of course, official German sources offered rather than admit that Tirpitz had decided not to spend the money needed to build ships around these larger guns, before capitulating with the advent of the 15". (You'll also be a witness to the ...eclectic... way that Corelli Barnett handles his technical sources.) British shells don't work. Scheer is as much in the tank for Tirpitz as Hipper is a critic, for obvious political reasons.

Yet there's something more going on here. As framed, this is a failure of British artillery technology two months before the Kitchener Armies are to be launched into the attack. I'm not accusing Admiral Scheer of spinning the Battle of Jutland as a reassurance that the army will survive the Somme. I'm claiming that we're seeing a bit of the old epistemic closure. Which, for no reason whatsoever, brings me back to Correlli Barnett's chapter on the Battle of Jutland in Swordbearers. Barnett offers such an extensive list of alleged British technical failures leaving Jellicoe in a bad position that it's almost unfair to single any particular one out. But there are links to be made and arguments to be had in focussing on one in particular, so I'm going to move on from metallurgy and physical chemistry and look at "inferior British optics."

Now, on one thing, Barnett was not wrong. The British optical industry was in retreat in the first decade of the Twentieth century, and had been for almost twenty years. Chance Brothers of Manchester was one of the world's pre-eminent optical glass makers in the early 1880s. By 1900, it had almost conceded the field to Zeiss of Jena. This perhaps had something to do with the rapid development of improved forms of window glass that attracted capital away from optics, but that is not to take anything away from the remarkable research effort at Zeiss. By hiring two physicists, including Ernst Abbe, early pioneer of optical computing (to go all out for anachromism), Carl Zeiss was able  that expanded its catalogue of specialised optical glass during the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. As Dr. Stephen Sambrook has established (and huge Internet credit to Dr. Sambrook for making the core of his research available for anyone interested in the British optical munitions industry), this very catalogue played a huge role in Zeiss's rise to near monopoly. Optical instrument makers were understandably not inclined to recompute complex optical devices for new glasses, while the extensive Zeiss catalogue made it likely that designers would turn to Zeiss glass in the first place.

Hey, Corelli! The  "inferior optics" of the British fleet were made with German glass! I know that you can pivot on that point and make a new argument, but maybe you want to rethink the part about Jutland? But there's more. Amongst the instrument makers who used Zeiss glass were William Stroud and Archibald Barr, two British professors at Yorkshire College of Science. Hearing in 1884 of the Army's new-fangled desire for "rangefinders," mainly to shoot guns at things that they couldn't see, the two of them perhaps saw a road out of Leeds, and proceeded to build the army a rangefinder in their garage. The army didn't want it, but the Navy did, and the two professors soon had a part-time business. As the Admiralty increasingly went in for the technology, others followed suit. Barr and Stroud nipped out Zeiss for the German patent for the rangefinder concept, and had a practical worldwide monopoly before they had a decent factory, which they built at Glasgow in consideration of the University giving Barr tenure at a real school.** Here's a great summary by Iain Russell for the University archives, highlighting Barr and Stroud's progress in the allied fields of technology, business, and PR. One of the more intriguing sidelights (apart from the patent trolling for and against Zeiss) is the way that Barr unashamedly played the anti-Semitic and anti-German cards as he acted to move first lens design and then glassmaking in house, cutting out his old (German Jewish) partners in the process. As the "National Efficiency" debate took hold in 1909, Barr and Stroud were well-positioned to represent a British response to the evils of supposedly superior German engineering (about which, in vast detail) and finally secure the army contracts that had eluded them in the past. Barr and Stroud thus manufactured and supplied the same general species of extensions of old-fashioned tacheometry that equipped British battleships at Jutland.

In my roundabout way, I've assembled a pretty long list of new industries implicated at the Somme. Pollen, of British Linotype, and also Thomas Cook and Sons of York, were involved in trying to build a complete computed gunnery control system for the Royal Navy. They have their personal historian in Jon Sumida, who seems, according to Brooks, to have been taken in by (sigh) another patent troll. Jutland proved a disappointment to those who hoped that technology had overcome the problem of hitting the target often enough to sink it. It was not, however, a disappointment for the iron and steel industry, notwithstanding much deceptive comment.

Brooks, in opposition to Sumida (we all remember the scandal when Journal of Military History got Sumida to review Brooks, right?) champions the much more mannered Elliott Brothers, an instrument maker in London in the midst of evolving into a computer giant. Elliott Brothers actually made much of the gunnery control equipment used at Jutland, working with the future Admiral Dreyer, brother of one of the army's gun design specialists at Woolwich, and son of an Anglo-Danish astronomer. We have Barr and Stroud, gone from a hobby project by two professors in 1885 to a Glasgow-area factory employing thousands of people in 1914. Rangefinders were only a component of the more complicated gunnery systems of Jutland, but, conceptually, at Elliott, they had emerged as tacheometers, devices designed to compute range and direction finding problems in surveying. "Computing," in this sense, is something done by lenses (and lens systems), as well as by people designing the devices. Chance Brothers, out of the industry virtually entirely in 1910, would follow Barr and Stroud's path, leveraging support from the Ministry of Munitions into  a full-blown return into the optical glass industry in the course of WWI, before being bought out by Pilkington and emerging as the modern Thale Optronics. The development of an "optical munitions industry" meant that Britain no longer had the luxury of withholding public support for a British firm interested in pursuing the field.

I come back, then, to the failure of the Somme --and of Sedan. In both cases, the ministries concerned failed in a pretty dramatic way. At the Somme, there were not enough shells, they were not fired quickly enough, and, even if they had been, they could not be aimed accurately enough. At Sedan, the French could have used a heavier and more modern gun, but the basic failure, I've argued, was a lack of redundancy in the control system that was required to actually use the huge French superiority in barrels to effect. In both cases, we've seen that, for political reasons, failure was recast. Lloyd George, having argued for more heavy guns in exactly the same way that his successors would argue for more heavy bombers, presented the failure at the Somme in terms of the 18 pounder's inability to penetrate bunkers. The problem here was British industry. The French would, more grandly, present defeat at Sedan in terms of a loss of national morale.

This has been a great deal of writing and rather too much time sunk in a blog posting going out on the day I received my copy of the first season of "Game of Thrones" if the lesson is going to be that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, that there are always vague and gassy Profound Lessons to be learned from am embarrassing failure of public policy. I would prefer to focus on the evolution of technology in its social context. What really happened? The answer, I think, is simple. After 2000 years, horse cavalry had abruptly become obsolete*** and the world hadn't really kept up.

This isn't a profound insight or anything. Colonel Maude was a deeply dumb guy, but when he gestured at technology as the only possible solution to the problem in 1909, he was basically pointing us at the future. As we know now, the solution that we can single out from the midst of Maude's laundry list of concerns is air power. Again, the brutally simple observation that the Battle of Sedan came out the way it did because the Germans had air superiority. The reason that I've wandered all this way is that I want to get past the bombs-falling aspect of the defeat at Sedan to the not-seeing-the-enemy part. Air power needs to be understood in terms of information warfare. And bombing is part of information warfare. This is the old secret of siege warfare. The defenders, whether in a modern fort around Verdun, a slightly older ring fort at Antwerp, or an improvised fortification at Sedan, can kill what they can see. At least, as long as they can ring up the guns on their field telephones, they can. So you use the violence of bombs and shells to drive the observers under cover, and they respond by substituting technology for human eyes. We've come to live in a world understood synthetically, in which the mind's eye rides the terrain technologically rather than in the saddle. The Third Republic was caught in the middle of that change, on the wrong side of things, perhaps for no better reason than having adopted a bad monetary policy in the early 30s. And so twenty million died.

Is this a plea for good policy? I guess that it is. Choose your advisors, the Kangxi Emperor would say, wisely. Don't be convinced by loud-mouthed patent trolls. For every Barr and Stroud, there's a Pollen, after all. Go for your Elliott Brothers. Pay them well, and let them build a new factory on the outskirts of London, make it accessible to young people, just starting out in life. By the time that factory has a monopoly on the instruments you need to see the future, it will be full of quiet competence. Or is it a plea for good fortresses, Fighter Command bases linked in to the Air Defence of Great Britain? Or is it both? Are the best fortresses good policy, and is the best policy a good fortress? I'd say that that's a crazy formulation if Janis Langins had not made it first.

Now, I believe I hear a DVD calling me.


*Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations Vol. 5 (London: Longmans, Green, 1928): 7—15; Nicholas A. Lambert, "Our Bloody Ships" or "Our Bloody System? Jutland and the Loss of the Battle Cruisers 1916." The Journal of Military History 61, (January 1998): 29–55. Shame on Conservapedia and New World Encyclopedia for lifting the text of the Wikipedia "Battle of Jutland" article, by the way. There's this thing called "Google" now, guys. Double shame on the online essay mill that reproduces the text of Lambert as an "example essay."
**I know, I really am ragging on Yorkshire and Leeds, here. I can't help it, because being all snobbish about small schools doing their best is funny.
***To force Jutland into this easy answer, I'd have to come up with some definition of cruisers/frigates as the cavalry of the sea. Let's pretend I did, okay?

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