Stealth and strategy to the fore for risk-averse enemies

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The First World War was ultimately won on land but there would have been no victory without control of the seas. Chris Bond looks back at the battle to rule the waves.

THE First World War was largely fought, and won, on land but this couldn’t have happened without the movement of ships and their crucial cargo of supplies.

In 1914 Britain still ruled the waves but her dominance was being challenged. In the years leading up to the outbreak of war there had been an arms race as Germany looked to expand its empire. By August 1914, the British Grand Fleet could boast 20 big gun dreadnought and super dreadnought battleships, and four fast battle cruisers, while the Germans had 13 dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers.

Neither side was willing to risk their fleets, the British because their superiority meant they already controlled much of the world’s oceans and the Germans because they knew that any head-to-head battle would spell almost certain defeat. Also, Kaiser Wilhelm II didn’t want to lose any of his flagship dreadnoughts which meant that, although there were big skirmishes, such as Dogger Bank and Jutland, there wasn’t a single, decisive battle.

Instead, the war at sea became as much about stealth and strategy as about armour and firepower. The threat from torpedoes and mines led the British to adopt a strategy of distant blockade, with their main bases in Scotland, notably at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

By doing this they effectively trapped the Germans in the North Sea, controlling merchant shipping’s access to Germany and preventing their warships from moving freely in the Atlantic and beyond.

Dr Robb Robinson, based at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, in Hull, said the war at sea played a more important role than many people realise. “The war on land gets all the attention but both Britain and Germany were trying to strangle each other’s trade routes,” he added.

In 1915, German U-boats began targeting merchant ships heading to Europe which led to the infamous sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania with the loss of 1,189 passengers and crew.

“Germany hoped to degrade our ability to wage war and combating the U-boats and the minefields was a very important job which relied on coastal communities all over the British Isles. Local boats were brought in to help sweep the sea so that trade could continue and this was going on day after day, week after week,” Dr Robinson said.

“Had the U-boat campaign been successful we would have been starved into submission. Britain is an island nation and the sea lanes were vital arteries and without them we would have run out of food and raw materials.”

At the start of 1917 Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and in April the British Admiralty adopted a convoy system to help combat the threat posed by the U-boats.

“The Germans took a calculated risk. They realised this could bring the Americans into the war but they gambled it would take them a year to get a force across to France and by that time they believed they could have brought Britain to its knees.”

As it turned out Britain survived, the United States was brought into the war and the campaign only sealed Germany’s fate.

“What the U-boat campaign showed was that Britain was vulnerable to attack by sea, something that was exploited again by the Germans in the Second World War.”

Which is why Britain’s victory was so important. “This was a new kind of naval warfare that wasn’t just fought by vessels on the surface, you had mines and U-boats and it was a grim war, a war of attrition,” said Dr Robinson. “The big naval battles were significant, but for me the battle to keep our sea lanes open was one of the most important of the war.”