Reading, Writing, And History

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The only trouble with all of this, as Mr. Hough remarks, was that the dreadnought was simply a gun platform, and the gun itself was going out of date. The big gun, of 12- or 14- or i6-inch caliber, was meant to be a ship-killer, and under ordinary circumstances that is what it was; unhappily, better ship-killers were being brought out. The torpedo was beginning to emerge as the one weapon no ship could cope with. Mines, torpedo boats, destroyers, long-range submarines, airplanes—even before the 1914 war started there were perceptive naval officers (including a number of smart juniors in the British service) who were beginning to feel that these fearfully expensive battleships were rapidly becoming obsolete because much less expensive craft could destroy them.

The real basis for Jellicoe’s crippling caution at Jutland was his realization of this fact. He had enough of a numerical advantage over the German fleet to stand up against it in head-on combat, even though his foes did have a superiority, ship for ship, but he did not dare expose his irreplaceable fleet to the mines and torpedoes which the Germans might use against him. The fact that he greatly overestimated the ability of a retreating battle fleet to sow mines in its wake and also overestimated the effectiveness of torpedo attacks in that particular stage of naval development does not mean that he was wrong. He recognized one point clearly enough: it did not take a battleship to destroy a battleship. Mr. Hough points out that in all the First World War, “not one Dreadnought battleship was to be sunk by the guns of another.”

Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship , by Richard Hough, with an introduction by C. S. Forester. The Macmillan Company. 268 pp. Illustrated. $14.95.

Furthermore, the big-gun ship was infernally cumbersome. At Jutland, Jellicoe was in command of a fleet that extended over seven miles when it was drawn up in line of battle. It was simply too big, too long, too much the prey of faulty communications (like Moltke’s army in France) to be wielded as an effective instrument. It was irresistible, in a way, but it was also extremely vulnerable. All of the nation’s hopes were riding on it: inevitably, the admirals had to feel that “behind every calculation, every decision, every signal, every turn of the helm was the deeply held conviction that the disaster of defeat must always be greater than the rewards of victory.” The ships, the squadrons, and the fleet must be preserved, even if the price of preserving them was victory itself. The chief function of the dreadnought, in the last analysis, was to stay afloat.

The battleship, in short, did not pay its way in World War I. In the next war it did, in a way, because by this time it had subsided to a subordinate role. It was extremely useful as an instrument for bombarding shore fortifications and as a guardian for airplane carriers, but it was no longer dominant. Mr. Hough points out, properly enough, that “where command of the air helped to grant command of the ocean’s surface, the battleship performed usefully; scarcely ever in the role for which it was once devised, but very often to good purpose. When command of the air was lost—as, say, at Pearl Harbor to the Japanese and at Leyte Gulf to the Americans—then the battleship succumbed.”

All of this, to be sure, is matter of common knowledge. The point is that the dreadnought was devised as an unlimited weapon, and was unable to be that even in its early days because newer weapons were available. Perhaps Jellicoe’s greatest problem—the one neither he nor anyone else could have solved—was simply the fact that the dreadnought battleship, the most ponderous weapon man had ever invented, was just not up to the kind of victory he was supposed to win.