22 DECEMBER 1939, Page 9


from 1932 to 1936 Lecturer at the Naval War Academy at Kiel] THE German Navy lost the last war because its directors saw in naval warfare a purely military duel between the two opposing fleets. Blindly convinced that with the out- break of hostilities the British Grand Fleet would not hesitate to penetrate into the Heligoland Bight and offer them battle, the German admirals for nearly two decades had had no thought or plan going beyond preparations for that en- counter. When instead the Grand Fleet preferred from its secure base at Scapa Flow to cut Germany off from the outer world without a preliminary battle against the German High Sea Fleet, they realised too late that in naval warfare the essential factor was control of vital communica- tions, not the defeat of your opponent's armed forces.

The realisation of that fact is the foundation-stone of Ger- many's naval strategy in the present war. Incapable of main- taining her own communications against the overwhelming superiority of the Allies, she was resolved not to repeat her former mistake and dissipate her efforts by directing them against the British Battle Fleet, but to concentrate them for an overwhelming attack against the Allied lines of com- munication behind the shield formed by that force. In doing so, the German naval strategists have certainly not ignored the fact that in naval history so far such " evasive " strategy has invariably broken down in the end before the command of the sea established by superior sea-power, as happened in their own submarine campaign in the last war. What has imbued them with the hope of faring better in the present conflict has been the determination to bring this attack to bear with a concentration of purpose and effort unknown in the history of naval warfare.

This concentration of effort was not merely to express itself in a new intensity of submarine and mine warfare, resulting from a hitherto unheard-of co-ordination and co- operation of the most diversified means of attack—sub- marine, aerial and surface—against Allied shipping. During the World War the German submarine campaign broke down, in the last resort, because the submarines were left alone in their attack on the Allied convoys. The main body of the German Fleet had indeed given them its indirect support and its assistance in passing through the British minefields in the Heligoland Bight, but it completely failed to co-operate with them directly by sending out cruisers through the British lines of blockade to overwhelm the weak convoy escorts, normally composed only of some six to eight destroyers, which sufficed to keep the submarines down.

Things were to be very different this time. Co-ordination of submarine and surface attack was to be the basic strategy. While the submarine would again force the Allied shipping together into convoys, German surface raiders, breaking through the British blockade into the open Atlantic, would come swooping down on them and annihilate whole convoys, escorts and all. The spearpoint of this attack was to consist of the three pocket-battleships. Swift enough to evade the bulk of the Allied warships, they were, with their powerful i r-inch guns, superior to practically any Allied man-of-war which they were likely to meet on escort duty. How great was the confidence which German naval ex- perts placed in them, and how sure they were of the success of that-strategy, is nowhere shown with more brutal frank- ness than in an article on British escort vessels published about a year ago by Admiral Meurer in the Militiir W ochen- blatt. Commenting on the fact that the British Admiralty was obviously preparing against an attack upon British shipping not merely by submarine but by surface raiders as well, he pointed out that the forces so far available (15 large and 6o odd small cruisers) were neither in numbers nor in individual strength adequate to that task. Even the pro- jected construction of special escort cruisers, with a rela- tively low speed but strong protection and armament, did not appear to him sufficient. "Against heavy cruisers with 8-inch guns, still more against armoured ships of the Deutsch- land' type, such escort cruisers would be of very little value. If such dangers were to be faced older battleships would be needed, as was the case with the Norwegian con- voys in 1918. . . . The less we have to reckon in future with the clash of large battle fleets, as at Jutland, the more trade warfare is going to predominate in naval war."

It is against the background of this assurance, and of the decisive role the pocket-battleships were designed to play in the German naval plan of campaign, that the failure of this new and formidable type assumes its full significance. The pocket-battleships have failed no less completely as raiders than as fighters. As raiders, though not wholly unsuccessful —the ' Graf Spee's ' 5o,000 tons do not compare too badly with the 70,000 apiece that fell to the Emden ' and ' Karls- ruhe' 25 years ago—they have completely failed to bring off that wholesale destruction of convoys which naval experts in both camps had hope (or feared, as the case may be) from them. Incomparably more important, however, is the fact that their vaunted superiority has been so signally disproved in last Wednesday's fight off the mouth of the La Plata. Not the fact that the ' Graf Spec' has been run to earth at last is the outstanding feature of that action, but that it has been successfully vanquished in an open and fair fight by three of those small cruisers so disdainfully dis- missed by Admiral Meurer as utterly unable to stand up to it. Thus is shattered at one blow the fundamental assumption in the whole German plan of attack, the superiority of their chief raiders over practically all vessels which they were likely to meet behind the British " front line at sea."

The chief credit for this must undoubtedly go to the re- markable pluck and skill of the British commander-in-chief and of his captains and to the marksmanship of the crews, which was great beyond all praise. Beyond that, however, the cl:eat of the ' Graf Spee ' seems to have confirmed con- spicuom'y certain defects criticised in Germany at the time of the Parliamentary struggle for the construction of the pocket-bank-Ai? class, and subsequently reaffirmed by rumours when the ships were first first put into commission. The remarkably strong armament had been bought at the cost of such a wholly impermissible weakening of the pro- tection, that, as was shown on this occasion, not even the strongest points—for example, the control-tower—were able to stand up to medium calibre (6-inch) gun-fire. Similarly, the placing of the lighter guns behind open shields on the deck, pointed out to me as long ago as 1928 as a source of weakness by a German naval expert, apparently enabled a British plane to silence them during the action by machine- gunning them from above. Above all, one cannot help wondering how far the extensive use of electric welding, employed throughout the pocket-battleships instead of solid riveting, to economise weight, may have contributed to the ' Graf Spee's ' surprising lack of resisting power. Beyond these defects in the pocket-battleship class itself two general facts seem to have emerged from the fight before Montevideo. One is the confirmation of the old truth that in a raider speed is of greater importance than fighting power. The captain of the ' Graf Spee ' seems very rightly to have followed the line that his main task was to disturb the Allied commerce, and not to fight naval battles. If his speed had been greater, it is not inconceivable that he might have succeeded in getting away once more, whereas his superior armament has proved of no avail to him. The other fact of interest is the curious decline in the marksmanship of the German Navy since the World War. In x914 the German Navy distinguished itself throughout by the ex- tremely high class of its gunnery. In the present conflict, however, the ' Graf Spec,' though without doubt ably com- manded, clearly fell far short of the remarkable marksman- ship displayed by her three nimble opponents.