Strategy from “Inherently Erroneous” Conceptions

Fear of InvasionA brief review of David G. Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I am very grateful for this book. David G. Morgan-Owen’s narrative provides much-needed clarity on one of the fundamental questions of World War I: How did the Royal Navy, the most dominant naval force of the day, come to adopt a passive strategy that ceded the initiative to their German opponents?

Morgan-Owen’s detailed analysis of strategic planning in the decades prior to the war provides a compelling answer. He does this by expanding the scope of the narrative, looking beyond the Royal Navy’s planning to consider its relationship with the British Army and the Government. What emerges is a pattern of decisions—each with a logical explanation in context—that gradually limited the Royal Navy’s freedom of action and left Admiral John R. Jellicoe in the unenviable position of being, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Those words made sense to me over three decades ago when I first started looking into the naval history of World War I. They seemed to offer a useful explanation for Admiral Jellicoe’s defensive attitude in the war’s largest fleet action, the Battle of Jutland. As more recent scholarship emerged, however, I began to wonder. Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game was an important step because it introduced the idea that perhaps the Royal Navy was insufficiently well-prepared to exercise command in a modern naval war.1

My study of U.S. Navy doctrine and tactics in the interwar period (1919-1939) provided another useful perspective. Although historians have repeatedly accused the U.S. Navy of “refighting” Jutland, U.S. Navy officers examined the battle as a learning tool, drawing out valuable lessons about the principles of naval warfare.2 One of the ideas repeatedly stressed in their analyses was the importance of offensive action, to seize the initiative and keep the enemy off-balance. Today, we would describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. In Learning War, I make the point that the U.S. Navy’s conception of the importance of the initiative expanded during the interwar period, so that it embraced not just the tactical level of warfare, but also the strategic. With this in mind, one U.S. officer described Jellicoe’s approach as “an inherently erroneous conception of naval warfare.”3 A rather damning critique which I’ve referenced in the title of this post.

I had that perspective in mind when I read Shawn T. Grimes’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918. Grimes challenges many established assumptions about the Royal Navy’s approach to war, providing a thorough analysis of exercises, strategic thinking, and conceptualizations about a potential war in the North Sea. I highly recommend it. Before reading his monograph, I hypothesized that—as strange as it might seem—perhaps the Royal Navy had not performed the kind of large-scale exercises necessary to adequately assess how to handle a modern fleet in battle. Reading Grimes, I realized my hypothesis was incorrect. Exercises were performed, and they seemed to provide a reasonably accurate assessment of modern technologies and their capabilities. I began to wonder if something prevented the Royal Navy from learning effectively from their exercises.

I had several questions. Why did men like Jellicoe adopt a defensive strategic posture? How did they maintain it in light of their material superiority? What led them to remain passive in the home theater while pursuing aggressive actions elsewhere around the globe? How did they expect the Royal Navy to help win the war?

Morgan-Owen provides a compelling history that answers these questions. British war planning is described in its full complexity; the Empire’s strategy emerges from the interaction of three linked—but largely independent—organizations, the British Army, the Imperial Navy, and the Government. Morgan-Owen eschews simplistic explanations like personal failings or shortcomings within a single organization’s planning process. Instead we are told that the “lack of a meaningful vision of how to prosecute a war against Germany” prevented alignment.4 There was no coherent overall strategy.

Instead, there were a series of lower-level decisions made by each of the three major organizations involved. The Army focused on creating a large expeditionary force, first for India, and then later for the Continent. The Government (and the public) became aware of the potential threat of a German surprise attack on England’s East Coast. The swift Prussian victory in 1870 prompted fears that a rapid movement across the North Sea could land unopposed and force a decision while the main strength of the British Army was away. The Royal Navy could not allow this to occur, so it focused on countering the threat.

Taken together, these cascading decisions—the brief description in the paragraph above is a gross simplification—provide a clear explanation for Jellicoe’s defensive stance. The outcome is remarkable in hindsight, because it meant that the inherent flexibility offered by naval power—which the British had used repeatedly to their advantage in the past—was subordinated to the employment of a large army. One could argue that the British, by focusing on a continental commitment, played to German strengths, which is something strategic planning should avoid. This outcome was obviously not clear to decision-makers at the time, and Morgan-Owen does an excellent job of explaining their perspectives, assumptions, and context to illustrate how undesirable consequences can result from the actions of well-intentioned individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategy, war planning, or naval history.

1. Gordon suggests that the Royal Navy’s dominant position through the nineteenth century led to ossified command structures that were insufficient for the demands of modern naval combat. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

2. David Kohnen argues that the U.S. Navy was the ultimate winner of Jutland. David Kohnen, “The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland”, Naval War College Review (Autumn 2016, Vol. 69, No. 4), 122-145.

3. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland (Annapolis, Md: U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 517.

4. David G. Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 215.

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