24 JANUARY 1936, Page 13



his article in last week's Spectator Mr. E. N. B. I ' Bentley stated the case for the aeroplane as against the battleship. That, however, is only a particular aspect of the general issue between air-power and sea-power.

And even on this single question the writer of the article referred to omits quite a number of relevant facts. For instance, in the case of the bombing of the old German battleship `Ostfriesland ' off Virginia Capes, in July, 1921, he slurs over some by no means minor points. First of all the Ostfriesland ' was at anchor. Secondly, it was not a question of one single bomb ; fifty bombs of 230 to 600 lbs. had already been dropped round her, of which thirteen hit without doing vital damage. Five big bombers then dropped four 1,000 lb. bombs, of which three hit, but failed to sink her. Finally, she was attacked by six bigger bombers with 2,000 lb. bombs, of which two exploded close to her port side. She listed to port and sank in twenty-five minutes. It should further be noted that the Ostfriesland ' was built about 1909, and that a modern " blistered " ship would not have succumbed so easily.

Nor is this the first time that the knell of the battleship has been sounded. The torpedo boat when it appeared in 1880 was to make an end of the- battleship. It did nothing of the kind—indeed, far less, as a Gad would say. Then about 1905 came the submarine which Sir Percy Scott said would drive the battleship off the sea.

Once again the scurvy trade of prophecy proved wrong. The submarine drove the battleship out to sea but could not drive it off the seas. And more—not one single Dreadnought battleship was sunk or even hit by a submarine in the whole course of the late War. And even if a bomber can hit a battleship, that does not necessarily abolish the battleship. In the late War fourteen destroyers were sunk by mines, but that did not diminish the utility of the destroyer, nor lead to its abolition.

Again, it is quite incorrect to say that a bomb exploding close to a ship " below the level of her keel " is going to break its back. A ship's " back " could only be broken by a charge exploding directly under the keel, which an air-bomb obviously cannot do. Nor is there any reason to believe that a bomb will be one bit more destructive than a 15-inch shell. If twenty-four big shells and one torpedo were not enough to sink the Seydlitz ' at Jutland, why should one suppose that a couple of bombs are going to sink a modern " bulged " ship ? Again it is all very well to talk of swoop-dives at 350 miles per hour, but can a big bomber with two 1,000 lb. bombs do gymnastics of this sort ?

But, after all, these are technical points which do not affect the real issue. The real issue is not between battle- ships and bombs but between air-power and sea-power.

They both have on the water a common aim—to control communications. Aircraft can exercise a potent influence in narrow seas and coastal waters. Invasion (in the old sense of the word) has become much more difficult and in face of a strong air force almost impracticable. In fact it may be said that a coastline adequately defended by aircraft is invulnerable to an attempt at landing. But air-power is limited in range and endurance. In wider and more distant waters the control of communications will depend on sea-power. The instruments of sea-power are ships of war which require bases, both for anchorage and for docking and repair.

Aircraft can attack these bases which are an adjunct of sea-power, or they can attack the warships which exercise control or the merchant ships which are the means of communication and supply. These questions all boil down to one word—geography.

Could aircraft do much against a squadron like Von Spee's in the South Atlantic ? Could they have done the work of the Tenth Cruiser Squadron in the Blockade ?

Aircraft are strong in the vicinity of their own main bases of repair and supply, but parted from them they grow weak, for they cannot, like a ship, stop anywhere to effect repairs. On the other hand, it may be admitted that a naval base within easy air-range of an enemy would be untenable. Let us suppose the highly im- probable case of hostilities between Great Britain and France. What is to become of Portsmouth, Cherbourg, Plymouth and Brest ? Even if bombs did not actually hit the docks and ships, the dislocation of work caused by a constant menace would greatly reduce the utility of the base.

Three centuries of sea-power have left us with a heritage of bases whose protection used to be insured by the fleet that they served. But we must not rush to the conclusion that Portsmouth is useless. It might be untenable in the case of a war with France, but it would still retain a high degree of utility in the case of a war with, say, Patagonia. Of course, anyone who kept thinking of a war with France would be bound to think of shifting our naval bases to Ireland or Canada or the North of Scotland. There is, however, another and more economical course—not to go to war with France. Malta and Gibraltar come into the same category.

Malta is some seventy miles from Italy .and Gibraltar is only a few miles from Spain. But this proximity does not necessarily mean the abolition of the battleship, for the battleship would not be there. In different areas the conditions would be different. Each area must be governed by its own circumstances. The fleet would exercise control over oceanic areas and in areas not accessible to aircraft, and its control would be strengthened by means of aircraft-carriers.

The advent of air-power, then, tends to accentuate what may be called the geographical aspect of sea-power.

Thirty years ago there was a tendency to regard the sea as one, but the late War showed that the North Sea was one sea and the Baltic another. There can be little doubt that a naval base within 500 miles of a big force of air- craft would tend to be unsafe for ships, and the question affecting any harbour or particular area would be whether aircraft could render it untenable by ships. This will depend on the continuity of the bombing and the air-force available. To keep a port 500 miles away constantly bombed by squadrons of four 'planes would require some- thing like 40 'planes. Again there is the wastage not only in 'planes, but men. One of the causes of the breakdown of the German submarine campaign was the loss of skilled commanders. A loss of two 'planes a day would soon reduce the bombing force to zero. On the other hand, one must remember that Dunkirk and Ostend were constantly being bombed in the late War with no decisive military effect. And even if air-power could render a particular base untenable, it must not be at once concluded that it has wiped out sea- power. The Straits of Malta is one place and the Red Sea is another.

The question of big battleships is not so much a question of bombs as of docks. There are very few docks that can take ships of 85,000 tons. Given equal constructional skill, size undoubtedly means power, but there comes a point where it also means great incon- venience and great expense. There can be little doubt that it would be very much to everyone's advantage to keep the size of battleships down to 26,000 tons, but France has already laid down two ships of 85,000 tons. War is largely a matter of competition, and this element of competition can only be eliminated by goodwill and common sense. It is very desirable to place a limit on the size of instruments of war, but this is really to place a limit on war, in which case it would be infinitely pre- ferable to abolish it altogether, which would mean the abolition of both bombs and battleships.