Strategic Failures Are Often Failures of Imagination
Dr. Schake’s essay contains two basic propositions. The first is her argument that the U.S. and Japanese navies in the years after the Washington Naval Conference and before World War II were sufficiently innovative, while the Royal Navy was not. The second is her argument that studying how and why these three navies responded differently to the challenge of maintaining their power at a time when the ability to build their forces was significantly constrained may help us now.
I agree with the second proposition but not the first. German naval forces did make possible the German conquest of Norway in 1940, but the Royal Navy’s force structure and tactics enabled it to prevent Germany from invading England that same year. And in 1941, the Royal Navy prevented German surface forces from working in tandem with German U-boats to blockade England. In 1940 and 1941, the Royal Navy lost many ships to Italian and German forces in the Mediterranean, but despite those losses, the British held on in the Mediterranean and blocked its use by the Italian Navy.
Before World War II, the “worst case” for the Royal Navy was the possibility that it would have to fight the German, Italian, and Japanese navies in the same war. The treaty limits and the limited strength of Britain’s economy kept the Royal Navy from building a force that could deter near-simultaneous attacks by these three enemies or prevail over them in a naval war fought in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. In World War II, the British faced the “worst case” and the Royal Navy suffered accordingly, but that navy shielded England from invasion and, with help from the U.S. Navy, prevented the German submarine blockade from forcing the British government to surrender to Hitler’s regime.
Finally, it is incorrect to assert that the Royal Navy was not innovative, even in the field of carrier aviation. That it did not build a carrier force that was by 1940 equal in combat strength to the carrier forces developed by the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy is a sign that the Royal Navy’s experience needs to be studied in detail, which is in fact what Norman Friedman, Mark Mandeles, and I did in American & British Aircraft Carrier Development, 1919–1941 (Naval Institute Press, 1999).
—Thomas C. Hone
This attempt to highlight the importance of innovating with imagination portrays the interwar Royal Navy as hidebound and obsessed by its recent past—and gives both the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies more praise than they deserve. But the British were not that bad.
“The navies of the United States and Japan accelerated in creative ways; Britain’s Royal Navy did not” is misleading. All three navies had force-structure gaps for which they paid dearly. Accusing the Royal Navy of complacency in antisubmarine warfare while passing clear over the deficiencies of the others—most notably, the Imperial Japanese Navy—is particularly unfair. Neither the initial U.S. response to the East Coast U-boat threat in 1942 nor Japan’s record throughout the Pacific War stand comparison with Britain’s global effort, whatever its flaws, from 1939.
The article also downplays interwar British naval leaders’ efforts to generate a new spirit of offensive action. But this proved critical to the Royal Navy’s excellent record between 1939 and 1945 and was a process of successful cultural change others (the U.S. Navy especially) would do well to study in 2021.
The Royal Navy’s attitude to amphibious warfare was more complicated than the author suggests. The British did not have to cross the Pacific but only transit the Indian Ocean to Singapore, and occupying their expected bases for an initial campaign against Japan did not require amphibious assaults. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom tested prototype landing craft in 1939, and, significantly, the successful wartime dock and tank landing ships came from joint British-U.S. design efforts.
British aviation development was held back more by the division of responsibility between the Royal Navy and the new Royal Air Force than by big-gun-obsessed admirals, but this did not stop the Navy from experimenting with multicarrier operations or planning airborne strikes against the Italian fleet in its bases during the Abyssinian crisis of 1935–36.
The Japanese are justly given credit for innovation in night-fighting. But at its 1930s night-fighting peak, the Royal Navy would have given Japan’s a run for its money. The tactics developed were not put to the test in the largely antisubmarine war against Germany. But the victory against the Italians off Cape Matapan in 1941 was the tactics’ legacy, even if the British were acutely conscious that their skill levels had degraded by then.
Ahead of the war, the U.S. Navy certainly considered unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan, but the British planned to interdict Japanese shipping, too. Furthermore, submarines were an integral element of Britain’s forward-deployed defenses—in 1939, the Royal Navy had 15 submarines in the Far East, a larger and more efficient undersea force than the U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s and one kept in theater until the European conflict’s demands grew too great.
A selective approach to the supposed failures and successes of decision-makers in the past distorts our understanding of that past. This matters, particularly when seeking to make an argument relevant to our present conditions. It is vital that use of the historical record be comprehensive and dispassionate and not a form of “smash and grab.”
—RADM James Goldrick, RAN (Ret.)