Tuesday, November 26, 2013

H.M.S. Warspite 1913-2013

Bit of military historical trivia here: the 100th anniversary of the launch of the battleship HMS Warspite.

One reason this kind of fascinates me is that I not long ago finished Bob Massie's Castles of Steel about the naval side of WW1; hell of a good book that gives a good sense of the sort of bizarrely-inverted importance of that part of the Great War.

Massie's bottom line is that the British couldn't win the war at sea but it was very possible for them to lose it there.

Had the commanders of the Hochseeflotte figured out how to make their war plan - lure out, cut off, and destroy parts of the Grand Fleet in detail - work before 1917 they'd have had a hell of a good chance to hammer Britain into submission given the British dependence on their "sea lanes of communication". The German battleships needed to sink Warspite and her sisters in order to sweep the seas of the Royal Navy and British merchant commerce. But to do that they needed to risk themselves, and the British fleet was just strong enough to present what looked like too much of a hazard of decimation of the High Seas Fleet in the process.
(Another bit of historical trivia: the factor that most British and German naval officers and naval policy planners either didn't know or didn't credit sufficiently was the relative quality of the German naval architecture.

I'm going to write up the Scarborough Raid in December for the Battles series and in it talk about this but the fact was that German gunnery in 1916 was flat-out better than British and that German capital ships could just flat-out take more punishment and continue to fight than the more numerous but less sturdy British battleships and battlecruisers which had a bad habit of sinking by catastrophic magazine detonation.

Three battlecruisers were lost in that fashion at Jutland, HMS Vanguard at Scapa Flow in 1917 to what was probably a massive sympathetic detonation of her central turret magazines, as well as HMS Hood in 1941. This turns out to be pretty critical because both British and German naval planners based their strategies on the assumption that 1 British battleship = 1 German battleship and that in a fleet engagement the 3:2 British numbers would win out.

Looking back now it seems apparent that between hitting harder and being capable of taking more damage the Hochseeflotte might have been well advised to go ahead and get stuck in. But that's for next month...)
Conversely, the British didn't need to sink the German fleet; what they needed to do was avoid being sunk by the German fleet whilst presenting sufficient hazard to that fleet that it couldn't risk being decimated attempting to break out of the North Sea.

The other aspect of this that kinda fascinates me is the degree to which we have already forgotten how big a role these vessels played in military and through that geopolitical history.

I think that when modern peoples - modern Americans, at least - think of "battleship" they think "outdated and expensive war machine" if they think of anything beyond last year's idiotic Battleship movie.

But the 'Spite's war records - from 1914 to 1945 - go a long way to dispel the notion that the battleship was a floating white elephant.

As Bob Farley points out: "While Americans tend to concentrate on the rarity of surface battleship engagements in the Pacific, most Royal Navy battleships took part in surface combat of some type during the (Second World) war, with Warspite fighting in several battles." and, in fact, HMS Warspite had a hell of a service record: Jutland (where she got pretty well hammered during the Run to the North) in the First World War, then in the Second; Narvik, Calabria, Matapan, the invasion of Crete, and finally naval gunfire support of the landings at Messina and Normandy.

I suspect that she had the reputation as a less-than-lucky ship early on. In the Teens she seemed to collide with everything in sight; her sister Barham in 1915, and the battleship HMS Valiant and a destroyer in 1916. She was even rammed by a Romanian passenger liner off Portugal in 1933. But at the end of the day she came home sound every time, something that more than one British tar couldn't say about their ship over the long course of the 20th Century.

Over at MilPub our resident strategist seydlitz just recently speculated about the possibility of formulating an overall General Theory of Strategy, a sort of Grand Unified Theory of war, to help enable historians, geopolitical, and strategic thinkers, to analyze military events of the past as well as ponder plans for the future.

The old battleship points up both the promise and the difficulty of such a task. By herself, a single machine designed and built a century ago, Warspite spans the Ragtime Era to the Space Age and points out how military fashions, ideas, and even individuals persist through very different periods. And yet the way we think of her now, as a lumbering anachronism, compared to the good service she did during her service life points out how difficult it is to accurately assess even military events, ideas, and individuals that were in concrete existence within our lifetimes, let alone generations ago or yet to come.


Big Daddy said...

From what I recall Warspite was the most heavily engaged and heavily damaged surviving British battleship of the 20th century. She actually spent the latter part of WWII with only 3 of 4 turrets operational after being bombed.
Regarding Jutland and the High Seas Fleet, the key takeaway for me is that the battle ended with the Germans in harbor,with Scheer reporting the fleet unable to sortie for months, while the Grand Fleet was at sea trying to get one more shot in, and when he returned to Scapa Flow, Jellicoe signaled he could sail on 3 hours notice.

FDChief said...

Yep. Her Wiki entry comments: "...earning her the most battle honours ever awarded to an individual ship in the Royal Navy and the most awarded for actions during the Second World War.

Jutland is kind of interesting as an engagement because in a sense both commanders were trying "not to lose"; Jellicoe because (in my - and Massie's - opinion) he understood that the Grand Fleet simply needed to remain afloat and undefeated and Scheer because he understood that the Kaiser would have had a kitten-fit had any significant number of the Hochseeflotte's capital ships ended up on the bottom of the North Sea.

So, yes; in that sense Jutland is not a draw; it's a strategic victory for the Royal Navy and ties into the overall success of the Allied naval war against Germany.

FDChief said...

"She actually spent the latter part of WWII with only 3 of 4 turrets operational..."

Look at the lower picture of her taken in June 1944 - notice that her "X" turret (the forward after turret) is trained inboard whilst "A", "B" (both forward turrets) and "Y" turret (the aftermost turret) are trained to port and obviously firing.

The interesting thing is that I can't find anything that directly ties the loss of that turret to battle damage.

The turret is reported as non-mission-capable (NMC) in June 1944.

Before that the last combat actions Warspite is engaged in is off Salerno in 1943 where she is hit by a "Fritz X" missile on September 16, 1943: "After arriving off Salerno on 15 September, Warspite bombarded an ammunition dump and other positions around Altavilla Silentina, demoralising the German forces and providing time for Allied reinforcements to arrive. Overnight the fleet came under intense air attack, but she was able to continue bombardment duties the next day. However, early in the afternoon she was attacked...by three Dornier bombers armed with an early guided missile, the Fritz X. She was hit (by one missile) near the funnel, cutting through her decks and making a 20-foot hole in the bottom of her hull, crippling her as it did so. Although the damage had been considerable, Warspite's casualties amounted to only nine killed and fourteen wounded."

And that's it for her until 1944; she goes into the yard for repairs September '43-May '44 and her next mission is Normandy in June '44, where her X Turret is reported NMC.

So I'm not really sure that the turret is out of action because of the bombing of September '43; the hit is reported as being hear the after funnel which is still several hundred feet forward of X turret.

I can't find anything definitive, but I suspect that what was happening was that the old battleship was showing her age and the effects of battle damage. She was just breaking down, and at that point in the war wasn't worth repairing any longer.

Leon said...

I've always felt this ship had the most bad-assed name ever.

FDChief said...

I've always loved the story that the launching of HMS Dreadnought prompted then-U.S. Congressman John S. Williams (D-MS) to introduce a bill to change the name of USS Michigan to USS "Skeered O' Nothing".

The bill never left committee, but, still...

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I will continue to maintain that the British had ALL the fun naming ships. I find our own named for states or politicians very boring and not at all inspiring of necessary battle lust.

Leon said...

I think the problem with US ship naming is they insist on using the full name. The problem is it's a mouthful. Let's look at the John C (yes, lets not forget that middle initial) Stennis. The war's over by the time you pronounce the name.

Lets compare to the Hood (if you separate out its grisly fate) which sounds pretty solid, pretty heavy sounding. Now imagine if they used the full name: Samuel Hood. Now it's some pimply teenager getting yelled at by his ma.

Seriously US, stop using first names on ships.

John Parodi said...

Really looking forward to your treatment of the Scarborough Raid. I haven't read "Castles of Steel" yet but I read Massie's "Dreadnought" a few years back. Great stuff -- it covers the naval arms race, the cast of characters (and I do mean characters), and RADM Mahan's development of the "fleet in being" notion.



FDChief said...

I don't have a particular problem with naming ships after people OR naming them after the full names of the people you name them after (I mean, the Reuben James was pretty awesome, and how about the Edmund Fitzgerald?)

No, the problem I have is naming them after 1) living people, and 2) people who, living or dead, are something less than unquestionably outstanding at something.

F'rinstance: if you're gonna name something after a politician it had better be a pretty fucking terrifically outstanding politician. Let's just take U.S. Presidents as a case. IMO you've got only three as cold hands; Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. All figures of immense historical moment, larger-than-life individuals whose contribution to U.S. history is undeniable even by those who may have specific issues with them either as politicians or human beings.

Other than that? I suppose you could argue for Teddy Roosevelt, but I'd say that the case for him is no better than any of the others in the "somewhat-above-the-level-of-Franklin-Pierce" category, guys like Andy Jackson, or Wilson, or Jefferson; people who may have been decent people and C+ presidents or even a little better but no more.

And from there where do you stop? I can tell you where I would have stopped; well above the level of fucking Carl Vinson, who two-ocean navy or not was a virulent racist, and goddamn John Stennis, another Dixiecrat with a decidedly mixed legacy in the Senate. And don't even get me started on Truman, Jerry Ford (Jerry Fucking FORD?), or Ronnie...

Frankly I'm fine with naming capital ships after states. And CVs with names of famous ships or battles? That's fine, too; it's the ship that makes the name, not the name the ship. The old CV-6 USS Enterprise has a record, and a name, far above and beyond the like of the more ferociously-named HMS Terror or HMS Invincible.