Today I heard a striking point about the British Navy, a frequent subject on this site.

At the start of WWII the British Navy was the largest in the world, but its effect on WWII was inconsequential. (I know Stefan will probably give various counter-examples but still, this statement is certainly accurate in relative terms compared to, say, the RAF, the American Navy, etc.)

The reason was the British Navy was out of date in forward thinking. It still thought battleships were the key, although they were fairly useless, and it had not really taken into account the effect of airpower — the key role of aircraft carriers and also the effect of enemy aircraft on British naval operations. Maybe also hadn't sufficiently taken submarines into account.

A lesson to all of us about military and other institutions, and life in general.

David Lilienfeld writes:

The Royal Navy had two impacts on the war:

First, it made the Mediterranean a British lake. There was never any contesting that control throughout the war. Second, it prevented Sea Lion. Whether Hitler would have prevailed in such an invasion is great fodder for holiday discussions with cognac by a blazing fire in the fireplace.

As for battleships, they still had a role–shore bombardment–but it was hardly the dominant role it had had pre-war. It's interesting that the Japanese looked at the air raid on Pearl Harbor as a partial success even as they didn't touch the US carriers or the critical US Navy's (and Army Air Forces's) supplies of fuel.






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1 Comment so far

  1. John Hutchins on December 17, 2012 5:16 pm

    My feeling is the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was the catalyst. Compliance meant Britain had to scrap a number of ships as their navy was too large, and the ones they kept were old and beat up.

    Japan, while remaining within the treaty, vigorously updated their ships, giving them their peculiar “pagoda mast” appearance. After withdrawing from the treaty they embarked on an ambitious construction phase that, when combined with incessant training and drills, gave them arguably the finest navy in the world.

    Great Britain and the U.S. could not do the same due to treaty limitations and the political unpopularity of defense spending.

    I haven’t seen any evidence that any nations’ naval doctrine before WWII identified air power superior to battleships. We clearly see now that it was the case. Their thinking, based on experience, made sense at the time.


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