Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Stephen McLaughlin
The Baltic is the only theatre in wh[ich] naval action can appreciably shorten the war.
—Winston Churchill, 22 December 19141
From October 1911 to May 1915 Winston Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty—the Royal Navy’s political chief—during which time he proposed a number of imaginative strategic schemes, of which the Dardanelles is by far the most famous. But more central to his strategic thought were his amphibious schemes, which ultimately constituted a grand strategy based on the idea of using Britain’s predominance at sea to defeat Germany. This was a goal he would continue to pursue long after he left the Admiralty.
There was nothing novel in this concept; the Royal Navy’s strategists had long argued that amphibious attacks on Germany should be Britain’s main contribution to a continental war. In particular, they looked to the Baltic Sea, where British control would cut Germany off from vital shipments of iron ore from Sweden. More importantly, it would allow the Royal Navy to land a Russian army on “a stretch of ten miles of hard sand on the Pomeranian coast which is only ninety miles from Berlin,” in the words of Admiral Sir John Fisher.2 Such an amphibious assault might bring a quick end to the war, and Churchill took up this idea with enthusiasm. On 19 August 1914, when the war was only two weeks old, he suggested to the Russian Commanderin-Chief, the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, that preparations be made for this operation on the assumption that the Royal Navy would obtain command of the Baltic.
And therein lay the rub. As Churchill noted in his message to the Grand Duke: “The Kiel Canal gives the Germans the power of putting their whole naval force either in the North Sea or the Baltic. The British naval strength is not sufficient to provide two Fleets, each individually superior to the German Fleet.”3 Sending a British squadron to the Baltic that was strong enough to face the German High Seas Fleet would dangerously weaken the Royal Navy in the North Sea, giving the Germans an opportunity to raid, or even invade, Britain’s coasts. Thus before any attempt could be made to land troops on the Pomeranian coast, either the enemy fleet or the Kiel Canal had to be put out of action. Unfortunately, both tasks were problematic: the German fleet—being weaker than the British—refused to give battle, and the Kiel Canal was well defended. It was to solve this conundrum that Churchill eventually incorporated another element in his strategy: seizing an island base off the German coast.
Gaining such an “oversea” base had also been studied before the war, and several candidates had been identified. The best of these was Heligoland, a small island about twenty-five miles north of the German coast that gave its name to the surrounding waters, the Heligoland Bight. But it was considered virtually impregnable—a conference on 17 September 1914 concluded that “the reduction of Heligoland would involve far more serious losses in capital ships than would compensate for any advantage gained.”4 The defenses of Sylt, off the Schleswig coast, and Borkum, the westernmost of the German Frisian Islands, were far less formidable, but both were vulnerable to long-range artillery fire from the nearby mainland, which would make them difficult to hold even if they were captured. So while some fire-eating admirals continued to argue for seizing an island base, the Naval War Staff had largely given up on the idea before the war began.
Not so Churchill, although at first he saw the oversea base as an entirely separate matter from the Baltic operation. In a memorandum dated 9 August 1914, for example, Churchill strongly urged capturing a forward base, primarily because it would make it possible for British destroyers, submarines, and aircraft to maintain a close watch on German activities in the Heligoland Bight. Moreover, it would “maintain in lively vigour the spirit of enterprise and attack” among the Royal Navy’s officers and men.5 At a meeting of the War Council on 1 December 1914, Churchill further noted that constant monitoring of German naval activity from such a base would eliminate any possibility of a surprise invasion, something that still worried the British army’s leadership. Having gained the War Council’s approval, Churchill charged the navy’s staff on 2 December 1914 with working out plans for seizing Sylt. His directive repeated the main points of his 9 August memo, but he added a new notion, a method for coping with enemy artillery fire from the mainland: gunfire from the new monitors— shallow-draft vessels mounting a pair of battleship-caliber guns in a single turret—would prevent the Germans from constructing gun emplacements within range of the islands. The monitors were one of Churchill’s brainchildren, intended for just such inshore operations, and were fitted with enormous “bulges” that made them resistant to mines and torpedoes.
A Mining Operation
Undergirding all these schemes was the assumption that seizing an island base would provoke the German fleet to come out and offer battle, giving the more powerful Grand Fleet the longsought opportunity of destroying its foe in a decisive battle. But by December 1914, it seemed increasingly unlikely that even the capture of an island would compel the enemy to action. That realization may have inspired Churchill to seek a different solution to neutralizing the German fleet, for on the 22nd he wrote to Admiral Fisher suggesting that after capturing an island, the Royal Navy could “block them [i.e., the German ships] in à la Wilson.”6 This was a reference to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a retired officer who was serving as a special adviser to the Admiralty; he had been advocating using dense minefields off the German harbors to prevent their fleet from putting to sea. Up until this point Churchill had opposed Wilson’s scheme, writing in October 1914:
It is not possible to blockade a modern fleet by mining, even on a very large scale, unless superior force is maintained in the neighbourhood of the minefield to prevent the mines being removed…. It would not be possible to keep such a watch now without exposing the vessels so engaged to almost certain destruction from the enemy’s submarines.7
On another occasion Churchill noted that “We have never laid [a mine] we have not afterwards regretted.”8
But by the end of December 1914 he had modified his stance on mining, combining it with other elements of his strategy—an island base, monitors, a Baltic landing—and adding yet another, the “new army” that Field Marshal Kitchener was training; between this force and the Territorials, it was anticipated that an army of half a million men would be ready by March 1915. In a memorandum to Prime Minister Asquith dated 29 December 1914, Churchill asked, “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”9 In this memo, and another submitted a couple of days later, Churchill laid out his favored alternative; boiled down, it amounted to the following:
1. Capture an island off the German coast—Borkum was now his first choice—and sow mines “on the most extensive scale” in all the German exits to the North Sea; these minefields would be protected by the destroyers and submarines operating from the new base. One of the major points he stressed in pressing for an island base was that its proximity to German harbors would allow the smaller, short-ranged B and C class submarines, used defensively up to this point, to take on an offensive role, practically quadrupling the British submarine force operating in enemy waters;
2. “The German fleet having been effectually excluded from the North Sea…Schleswig-Holstein c[oul]d be invaded in force, & an advance made on the Kiel Canal”—this force presumably to be Kitchener’s new army;
3. Denmark would then be invited to join the Allies, with the promise that Schleswig-Holstein would be returned to her;
4. Danish cooperation having been secured, a powerful British fleet would enter the Baltic, “thus cutting Germany off from all Northern supplies”;
5. The final act would be the landing of a Russian army “at various points on the Baltic shore less than 100 miles from Berlin.”10
Furthermore, the monitors would play an important role in capturing and defending the oversea base; their gunfire, guided by aerial reconnaissance, would prevent the Germans from placing heavy guns on the nearby mainland.
While the War Council approved his project “in principle” on 7 January 1915, Churchill had a difficult time convincing his naval colleagues that the operation was feasible. He needed buy-in from Admiral Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, and in January the two exchanged a series of letters on the subject. Churchill repeatedly tried to convince Jellicoe that his fleet would be involved only as a distant covering force, leaving it free to tackle the German fleet if it sortied; the invasion and defense of the island would be accomplished by a special bombarding force of old battleships and monitors along with powerful destroyer and submarine flotillas. “Having taken the island in question,” Churchill wrote on 11 January, “we must make it the most dreaded lair of S/Ms [submarines] in the world.”11 Jellicoe, however, remained unconvinced; while he realized “the immense advantages” of an island base, he questioned the ability to hold one so close to Germany and so far from Britain.12
The Naval War Staff also opposed the plan; Captain Herbert Richmond, the Assistant Director of the Operations Division, noted that Borkum was defended by substantial batteries, and that silencing those batteries by naval bombardment would be difficult due to the prevailing hazy weather and the lack of landmarks on the flat and featureless island. Admiral Fisher, the First Sea Lord, also expressed doubts, noting that “Even the older ships should not be risked, for they cannot be lost without losing men, and they form the only reserve behind the Grand Fleet.”13
By the end of January 1915 the Dardanelles campaign was taking shape, and Churchill was much involved in its planning; but he remained convinced that the capture of an island base, followed by the neutralization of the German fleet by extensive mining off its harbors, would be the first steps in a war-winning amphibious strategy. He continued to tinker with the plan, and on 24 March 1915—a week after the disastrous naval assault on the Dardanelles—he wrote a long memorandum outlining the entire operation. Although he did not explicitly mention it, recent Russian defeats on the Eastern Front must have influenced his thinking, since there was no longer any mention of landing a Russian army in Pomerania; instead, the “decisive military stroke” would come from a British force “not less than 500,000 strong,” which would be landed at Emden and then advance on Berlin, or into Westphalia.14 Planning for the operation apparently continued until Churchill was forced out of his post as First Lord of the Admiralty on 26 May 1915.
Never Give In
But Borkum remained in his thoughts. After he returned to the government as Minister of Munitions in July 1917, Churchill immediately submitted a long memorandum to the War Cabinet, “Naval War Policy, 1917,” in which he again advocated a greatly modified version of his strategy. By this time the United States had entered the war, and with the addition of the US Navy to the Allied cause, Churchill calculated that two complete battle fleets could be formed, each more powerful than the German fleet. He proposed:
One of these fleets should be a fast blue water fleet, like our present Grand Fleet, for maintaining supremacy of the seas…; the other should be fitted with bulges and thus rendered comparatively torpedo proof, in order to discharge the functions of an Inshore Aggressive Fleet.15
This second fleet would assist in capturing both Borkum and Sylt and then supporting the blockade of the German ports by an extensive mining campaign—which would also bottle up the enemy’s U-boats, thereby putting an end to their campaign against Allied shipping. Next, Denmark and/or the Netherlands would be invited to join the Allies, supported by a British army, for an attack on Germany. If capturing the islands was thought too difficult, Churchill suggested forming an artificial island base from concrete caissons—a foreshadowing of the Mulberry harbors of the Second World War. None of his ideas, however, was taken up.
When Churchill returned to the Admiralty as First Lord in September 1939, he proposed Operation Catherine, which incorporated some of his First World War strategic ideas. The core idea was to send a squadron built around battleships fitted with anti-torpedo bulges into the Baltic. A great deal of staff work was devoted to this operation, but any such attempt would have been disastrous in the face of the greatly increased effectiveness of air power. Catherine, like Churchill’s schemes for Baltic operations in the First World War, never got past the planning stage.
Churchill’s grand strategy was probably never really feasible; the objections raised by his naval advisers were real and cogent. But in the process of assembling his schemes, he demonstrated the characteristics that would make him an outstanding leader in the Second World War: imagination, an eagerness to take advantage of technological innovations, an openness to adopting the ideas of others and adapting them to his purposes, and a constant search for the offensive, for gaining what he termed “moral” superiority over the enemy. The evolution of his amphibious schemes therefore marks a definite step in his development as a strategist.
Stephen McLaughlin works for the San Francisco Public Library. He helped produce an annotated edition of the Naval Staff Appreciation of Jutland (Naval Institute Press, 2016).
1. Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume III, Part 1, July 1914–April 1915 (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 326. Hereafter cited as WSC III, C(1).
2. Ruddock F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 404.
3. WSC III, C(1), p. 45.
4. A. Temple Patterson, ed., The Jellicoe Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa, 2 vols. (London: Navy Records Society, 1966–68), vol. I, p. 69.
5. WSC III, C(1), pp. 24–26.
6. Ibid., p. 325.
7. “Notes on Mining,” 18 October 1914, CAB/37/121, The National Archives, Kew.
8. WSC III, C(1), p. 426.
9. Ibid., p. 344.
10. Ibid., pp. 343−45 and 347–49.
11. Ibid., p. 403.
12. Ibid., pp. 417–18.
13. Ibid., C(1), p. 453.
14. Ibid., pp. 732–37.