John Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College. An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Journal of Strategic Studies.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Great Britain faced a serious strategic challenge in imperial Japan, whose nascent sea power threatened the security and interests of the British Empire in Asia. At the center of British decision making about Japan’s naval challenge in 1924–29 was Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, who reviewed spending requests of government departments, set priorities, sought revenue, prepared budgets, and managed the economy in the hurly-burly politics of the public arena.
Churchill had just turned fifty and, at the height of his powers when he became Chancellor, was determined to take an active role in directing Britain’s grand strategy. One colleague described Churchill as “the most forceful personality in the Cabinet.”1 But he forcefully challenged the idea of conflict with Japan. In an oft-quoted letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill wrote: “why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.”2 Instead, he foresaw a “long peace, such as follows in the wake of great wars.”3 In a tragic irony of history, Churchill’s words would later come back to haunt him when Japan attacked the British Empire in December 1941. Read More >
In his war memoirs, Winston Churchill wrote of the danger in the Atlantic: “Besides the constant struggle with the U-boats, surface raiders had already cost us over three-quarters of a million tons of shipping. The two enemy battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Hipper remained poised at Brest under the protection of their powerful A. A. batteries, and no one could tell when they would again molest our trade routes. By the middle of May  there were signs that the new Battleship Bismarck, possibly accompanied by the new 8-inch-gun cruiser Prinz Eugen, would soon be thrown into the fight.”1
Based on naval intelligence, Churchill knew the German battleship was a fast and powerful vessel and the most heavily armored ship afloat. The Bismarck had eight 15-inch guns in four turrets, two fore and two aft. It also had eighty-one smaller guns, mostly anti-aircraft.
The Bismarck also had a special anti-torpedo belt made of nickel-chrome steel, which the Germans believed would ensure that no torpedo in use by the British could penetrate. With some reason, Germans were convinced that the Bismarck was nearly unsinkable.
Both in his second stint as First Lord and then as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Winston Churchill refused to leave the waging of the war at sea to the admirals alone. Rather he sought to impose his imprint on the navy. With Churchillian energy, he suggested strategy and tactics, argued with his admirals in meetings that dragged into the early morning hours, proposed schemes and operations, rained signals on admirals at sea, and allowed no detail no matter how small to escape his attention. At every turn, he encouraged the offensive and did not hesitate to prod the navy’s flag officers. He badgered those he thought lacking in fire, sacked or sidelined those who had incurred his wrath, respected those who had proven ability even if they disagreed with him, and promoted those he admired. Churchill’s relationship with the senior admirals illustrates the long and difficult, but ultimately victorious, struggle in the war at sea.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound
“My trusted naval friend.”1
Churchill inherited Pound as First Sea Lord upon taking office as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, but quickly grew to like and trust the rather dour old admiral who lacked charisma. He thought Pound, although cautious, had the best brain in the navy.2
Illustration showing Churchill in consultation with Lord Fisher
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Christopher M. Bell
One of the most damning charges regularly levelled against Winston Churchill for his role in the Dardanelles campaign is that he either ignored or overruled his principal naval advisers, who unanimously warned of disaster if a naval offensive were launched without troops to support it. Churchill always insisted that this was untrue, that he had had the support of the admirals. But there is almost no hard evidence to back him up. No minutes were taken of the deliberations among Churchill and his top naval advisers in early January 1915, when the proposal to force the Dardanelles by ships alone was first considered at the Admiralty. Historians have therefore had to rely on later testimony from the participants to reconstruct what happened.
The best—though far from perfect—source we have on these deliberations is the voluminous testimony provided to the official Dardanelles Commission, established by an Act of Parliament in 1916 to investigate why the campaign had been launched, and what had gone wrong. Over the course of twenty days, from September to December 1916, the Commission examined thirty-five witnesses, including all the surviving members of Asquith’s War Council, as well as the admirals who had taken part in the Admiralty’s decision-making process. Did they complain that Churchill had failed to heed repeated warnings that the naval offensive was doomed? A recent study of Churchill’s part in the Dardanelles campaign claims that the testimony of naval leaders “leaves no doubt” that their “opposition to a purely naval operation at the Dardanelles by Fisher, Jackson and all of the naval experts, had been neither half-hearted nor hesitating.”1
A painting of Heligoland before the First World War
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.
On 7 August 1914, under safe cover of British cruisers and naval aircraft, the Admiralty set about the massive task of transporting the British Expeditionary Force across the English Channel to France. Between then and 27 August, the Royal Navy, without the loss of a man or damage to the ships, safely deployed 120,000 men plus supplies, transport, weapons, munitions, and other equipment across the Channel. It had been a wonderful operation on a scale previously undreamed of, and it had been conducted in such secrecy that the German Supreme Command confidently told its mobile army headquarters in Belgium that no landing of British troops on a large scale had yet taken place. This was on the eve of the first British shot on the continent, near Mons, on 22 August. Admiral Lord Fisher, the onceand-future First Sea Lord, liked to say that the Army was a projectile to be fired by the Navy. Here lay proof of that.
The BEF commenced its concentration, taking up its intended position on the north and west flank of the French army. The German army’s push to defeat the French army was halted at the Battle of the Marne. In a whirl of movements, the front shifted north and into Belgium, leaving exposed the hugely important Channel ports. If Germany could get possession of Antwerp, it would gain immeasurable power in waters opposite the River Thames. German staff knew that Antwerp must be taken to safeguard the right rear of their armies swinging down into France. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill signalled Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, to contemplate the proper positioning of his ships if the Germans were to take measures to control the Channel coast.
Churchill as First Lord of Admiralty inspecting Royal Navy cadets
Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
By Matthew S. Seligmann
Before the outbreak of war in 1914, it was not as a warrior or as a war leader but as a radical liberal reformer that Churchill was best known. First as President of the Board of Trade, where he had introduced labour exchanges, and then as Home Secretary, in which office he had regulated conditions in the coal mines, Churchill had cemented a political reputation based upon tangible measures designed to improve the lives of working people. As such, he was arguably, alongside fellow radical David Lloyd George, one of the main architects of the social security system that prefigured the welfare state.
Did the reform activities for which he was best known continue with his appointment to the Admiralty? Many historians would say not. Malcolm Hill, for example, ends his study Churchill: His Radical Decade with his subject’s departure from the Home Office in 1911. Apparently, nothing radical occurred while Churchill was at the Admiralty. Sebastian Haffner assumes the same, arguing in his excellent appraisal that Churchill’s “radical phase” ended and his warrior phase took its place when he was transferred to the Admiralty. But was this really so? Did this move from one government department to another really mark such a major lacuna in Churchill’s political objectives?
At the start of his parliamentary career in 1901, Winston Churchill promoted the old Victorian themes of “peace, retrenchment, and reform,” but at the conclusion of his first decade as an MP, he was a champion of what was known as “New Navalism” and a vocal advocate of a greatly enlarged Royal Navy. At mid-decade, he had changed his party political affiliation from Conservative to Liberal.
The Royal Navy for centuries had been a central fabric in British life, with a glorious and long history. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, the Senior Service found itself threatened by rival naval powers, which it had never experienced in a global supremacy lasting a hundred years. In 1914, the British Navy was almost as sacred as the Crown—and just as popular. Public interest in the strength of the Royal Navy heightened as the total amount of naval expenditures surpassed all previous records.
The period of “New Navalism” stretched from 1889 until 1914, during which time there was but one three-year period (1905–1908) when naval expenditures were not increasing. The “New Navalism” was a natural product of the combination of economic nationalism and national imperialism, as promoted by the American “Father of the New Navalism,” Alfred Thayer Mahan.
A professional army officer by training, Winston Churchill became forever linked with the Royal Navy as a result of his service as First Lord of the Admiralty in the early months of both world wars. This service Churchill himself immortalized in his many Second World War messages to President Roosevelt, where the Prime Minister referred to himself as a “Former Naval Person.”
When the guns of August sounded in 1914, Churchill had already been on the job at the Admiralty for three years. During the pre-war years, he had to contend with what was known as the “New Navalism,” which W. Mark Hamilton shows was a commitment to the principles of Alfred Thayer Mahan: developing and maintaining powerful modern navies. But Churchill also found time to improve the pay and working conditions of the common sailor, as Matthew S. Seligmann shows.
When the First World War began, Churchill was all for action. Not content to sit behind a desk in London, he went to Belgium in the opening weeks of the war and wound up organizing Antwerp’s defenses. Barry Gough explains the heavy criticism that followed. Undaunted, Churchill cast around for offensive operations off Germany’s northwest coast. Stephen McLaughlin demonstrates how this effort ultimately led to a campaign much further afield at the Dardanelles. With respect to that climacteric, Christopher M. Bell has carefully studied the historical record and finds that Churchill did run so far ahead of his professional advisers as his critics found it politically expedient to claim.
Steve R. Dunn, The Scapegoat: The Life and Tragedy of a Fighting Admiral and Churchill’s Role in His Death, Book Guild Publishing, 2014, 251 pages, £17.99.
Steve R. Dunn has brought back to life a forgotten hero of the Royal Navy. Not only does the author focus on the life of Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher “Kit” Cradock, but on the life and times of the late Victorian and Edwardian Navy—Dunn’s “Vicwardian Navy.” Cradock’s actions at the Battle of Coronel in November 1914 resulted in the first British naval defeat in 100 years and the loss of 1,600 lives off the coast of central Chile. Yet, Dunn’s effort portrays Cradock as a true hero up against the questionable actions of the ambitious and youthful First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The book is extremely critical not only of Churchill’s actions, but of the class-ridden Royal Navy’s officer “establishment” before 1914. Cradock personally did not welcome Churchill’s arrival at the Admiralty in 1911 and believed the new First Lord never liked him.
During the early months of the First World War, Cradock found himself and his squadron facing German Vice-Admiral Maxmilian von Spee off the coast of South America. All the belligerents knew the German squadron was vastly superior as a fighting unit to the British. As the conflict approached, Cradock requested additional naval support, which was refused. Read More >
After Crete was lost, the evacuation of Allied troops proved almost as costly as the fighting. When half the Mediterranean Fleet had been crippled or lost, the Admiralty ordered the evacuation to stop. Fraser, then in Egypt, could not agree to abandoning the New Zealanders still there and made an eloquent plea in Alexandria to Admiral Cunningham, the naval commander. When he finished speaking the ensuing silence was broken by Cunningham: “Mr. Fraser is right.”
The Admiral resolved to ignore his orders and make one last attempt: “It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take 300 years to build a new tradition.”1 If the light cruiser HMS Phoebe got back to Egypt, Cunningham said, she would be sent back for one last effort.
In the darkness that night, Fraser and Cunningham stood on the dock at Alexandria, waiting in the hope that HMS Phoebe would arrive. It was nearly midnight before they could make out the faint loom of the ship as she ghosted in. Cunningham told the captain to return to Crete and pack in as many New Zealanders as possible. With a scratch crew, the cruiser left at dawn. She returned safely the next day, though HMS Calcutta, sent out to escort her, was sunk. She brought 3700 soldiers from Sphakia. Cunningham and the Royal Navy, said Fraser, were “beyond praise.”2
1. Quoted in Antony Beevor, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (London: Penguin, 1992), 217.
2. Fraser to his deputy and eventual successor Walter Nash, 2 June 1941. NZ Documents, I 313.
On 13 March the First Lord presented his naval estimates of £48 millions to the House of Commons. Concerns over Britain’s ability to compete with Germany overcame the reservations expressed by Lloyd George about the country’s ability to afford it. In fact, other views, expressed by Lord Charles Beresford, argued that the navy was still understaffed and ill- prepared. However, the Daily Telegraph stated that “the Navy has never in its long history had a more persuasive spokesman in Parliament than the present Minister.”
In April Churchill was involved in what came to be known as the Marconi Scandal. His colleague, Lloyd George, was accused of improperly trading in shares of the Marconi Company. Churchill vociferously defended his friend. When the editor of the Financial News testified that Churchill himself had profited by trading, the accused exploded. He charged that anyone who stated anything other than his innocence “was a liar and a slanderer.” Not only was he believed to be innocent by the public but his friends were impressed by his self-defence. One wrote: “it is in affairs like these that breeding asserts itself.”
In May the Churchills set out on a Mediterranean cruise on Enchantress. They were accompanied by the Asquiths and their daughter, Eddie Marsh and Winston’s mother. At the time, Jennie was unhappily divorcing her husband, George Cornwallis-West, who had deserted her. They toured Venice in a gondola, visited Dubrovnick and went fishing in Vallona Bay on the Albanian coast. At a picnic luncheon Winston kept quoting Gray’s Ode to Spring. “At ease reclined in a rustic state. . . . “
As Churchill assumed control of the Admiralty he became more convinced that Germany was intent on a war for control of Europe, and that the Naval War Staff was required to prepare the Royal Navy for the coming struggle. In order to reorganize the Royal Naval high command he asked for the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, and replaced him with Sir Francis Bridgeman.
As Second Sea Lord he appointed Prince Louis of Battenberg. His views on the Royal Navy were later expressed in The World Crisis: “…when I went to the Admiralty I found that there was not a moment in the career and training of a naval officer when he was obliged to read a single book about naval war…. The Royal Navy had made no important contribution to naval literature.”
Winston’s concussion was described as “slight” by Harrow medical adviser G.C. Briggs, who said that he was put to bed “and will require careful watching for a few days.” Today, we know that even mild concussions are not to be treated lightly. Neither of Winston’s parents visited him at Harrow while he was bedridden, not for lack of requests. On 22 June his nanny, Mrs. Everest, arrived and Winston thanked his mother “for letting Woom come down.” Having mentioned that “I do not feel very fit,” he added: “Can’t you come instead—I was rather disappointed at not seeing you as I fully expected to.”
Once again, Winston’s pleas fell on deaf ears but Mrs. Everest came again the next day. He wrote to his mother: “Thanks awfully for letting Woom come down today. Both Doctor & Nurse say that they think I shall need a rest. I hope, most excruciatingly, that I do come home. Do come tomorrow….I am very delighted at the idea of coming home.” Read More >
Meanwhile in the Mediterranean a drama of intense interest, and as it proved of fatal consequence, was being enacted….” Our author’s dramatic account of the first naval action in World War I makes for exciting reading a century later—even though he lost.
In a feat of seamanship even Churchill was forced to admire, the German battlecruiser Goeben eluded Royal Navy hunters and sailed to Constantinople, where she was presented to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim. usually shortened to Yavuz. By bombarding Russian Black Sea facilities she brought Turkey into the war on the German side. Remarkably, she remained the flagship of the Turkish Navy until 1950, and was not scrapped until 1973, after the West German government declined an invitation to buy her back.
The event which would dominate all others, if war broke out, was the main shock of battle between the French and German armies. We knew that the French were counting on placing in the line a whole army corps of their best troops from North Africa, and that every man was needed. We were informed also that they intended to transport these troops across the Mediterranean as fast as ships could be loaded, under the general protection of the French Fleet, but without any individual escort or system of convoys.
The French General Staff calculated that whatever happened most of the troops would get across. The French Fleet disposed between this stream of transports and the Austrian Fleet afforded a good guarantee. But there was one ship in the Mediterranean which far outstripped in speed every vessel in the French Navy. She was the Goeben. Read More >
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