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 Post subject: A Medley of Military Miscellany, I: Mahan & Malta
Unread postPosted: 06 Sep 2015, 11:17 
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A Medley of Military Miscellany, I:
A collection of short tales from military history

Often, the contributors and editors of In a Nutshell often come across short little stories that just lack enough of the background, narrative, images, or historiography needed for us to write a full article. However, our passion for writing about history means we can struggle to let these ideas go, and we end up sitting on a whole host of incomplete articles in the hope that maybe, just maybe, we'll come across something new to complete the article. Some of us have been sitting on article ideas for years.

For us, and for the reader, this is not an ideal situation, so we have developed a solution. Each issue of 'A Medley of Military Miscellany' will be a collection of these short articles, written up and brought to you in a unique mix. Enjoy, as these are some of the most interesting and oddest tales of military history.


Malta's Magic Carpets

By John Ash

The various operations to keep British forces and civilians on the island of Malta supplied with enough up to date equipment, ammunition, fuel, and food to ensure the adequate defence of the country as well as allowing the island to become a real thorn in the Axis side are among the most important, if not solely the most important, operations of the war.

In a previous article the story of SS Ohio and Operation Pedestal, the most important of the Malta Convoys was told in great detail. Of note were the incredible losses sustained by that convoy, no less than 13 Allied ships were sunk, including an aircraft carrier and nine of the fourteen merchant ships. Over 550 Allied crew died, and 34 aircraft were lost. By comparison, the Germans and Italians lost considerably less, around 60 aircraft and two submarines, and other ships damaged. Such losses make Pedestal seem like whitewash, a clear Axis victory, but the operation was not about sinking Axis ships or downing enemy planes, the cargoes delivered to Malta would go a long way in turning the war around, and it was vital they got through.

Nevertheless, the convoys were risky and costly and alternative means of getting people and supplies into Malta were tried long before the success of Pedestal. Much of this burden would fall on Britain's fleet of submarines.

The largely forgotten efforts of the Royal Navy's submarines in the Mediterranean are certainly very impressive, in two years of war, British submarines sank well in excess of 70 large supply ships, not to mention smaller craft and a number of Italian warships. Dozens of other ships were also damaged, and British submarines in the theatre were responsible for sinking at least 500,000 tonnes of Axis shipping. It was not an easy undertaking, the Italian Navy was pretty good, and had a large amount of ships. In addition, the relatively short length of the convoy routes meant that the Axis could afford to use a large number of escorts to protect even the smallest, 4 or 5 ship, convoys. The Italians were not afraid to counterattack British submarines, and proved to be a very determined foe at sea. As a result the Royal Navy sustained considerable losses to its submarine arm.

Although the primary mission of the Royal Navy's submarines was to interrupt the transit of Axis supplies flowing into North Africa, a key second task would concern the resupply of Malta as part of a wider effort to keep the the island in the war. Larger submarines such as minelayers and others were to be used to carry various cargoes to the besieged island from their base in Alexandria, and such operations would soon become known as the 'Magic Carpet Service'. The first submarine to do so was the Grampus-class minelaying submarine HMS Porpoise, which carried petrol to the island on her first run as a blockade running, underwater freighter. In all, she would make nine trips to the island and the actions of Porpoise, and other submarines including her sister, HMS Rorqual, would keep the RAF and FAA supplied with enough aviation fuel to sustain operations from the island.

HMS Rorqual leaving Algiers in April 1943, Rorqual would be the only boat of her class to survive the war: IWM

In July 1941 alone, the Magic Carpet Service transported 126 passengers, 84,000 gallons of fuel, 83,000 gallons of aviation fuel, 30 tonnes of general goods and supplies, six tonnes of ammunition (including air dropped torpedoes), and they even found space for 12 tonnes of letters and parcels - a fantastic effort. Although the Magic Carpet runs were seen as rather dull when compared to the hunter-killer or minelaying missions submariners were more accustomed to, they were still extremely dangerous affairs. This could not be an issue however, the runs had to happen, as while the submarines could never hope to collectively smuggle in as much supplies into Malta as even a single merchant ship or tanker, no one could be sure that a supply convoy could get single ship through successfully, let alone the entire convoy.

The Magic Carpet Service was invaluable in keeping Malta supplied at a time where surface losses were exceptionally heavy, and the resupply runs were completed with the utmost efficiency. In all, 38 British submarines and one Free French submarine would be lost in the Siege of Malta.


Lesser considered consequences of an Elizabethan defeat against the Spanish Armarda

By Oliver Thébault

1588, the year the Spanish Armarda sailed to England. The Spanish wished to remove the protestant usurper Elizabeth and put a good old catholic (puppet) monarch on the throne. This is an event which appears in every schoolchild's history book, and a year when little England slapped the Spaniards around the chops!

However there was much more at stake than just the nature of England's monarchy. The Spanish had a plan, and if it had been successful there could very well have never been a British Empire, or even Britain for that matter.

Upon occupation of England the Spanish had planned to burn down the New Forest and Forest of Dean, while to us today this sounds pointless, empty, and almost without meaning, in an age where a nations economy relied on shipbuilding this would have been devastating. England's forests were so important for national defence that they were protected by law, trees take decades to grow, and once they are cut down they have to be stored for months to mature. Without this much needed resource English maritime trade and exploration; the foundations of Empire, would have been impossible. The Spanish plan would not have just affected the Elizabethan generation, but following generations for decades.

This would have caused a similar but much more wide-scale problem as that which had later occurred in the mid-17th Century. The English navy and merchant fleet was in crisis, following Anglo-Dutch Wars there was simply no suitable timber left for shipbuilding. The problem was so bad that upon visiting Chatham Dockyard, Samuel Pepys (Surveyor-General of Victualling at the time) remarked upon the chronic lack of timber meaning many ships were left to rot and building new vessels was an impossibility. A direct cause for the English failure in the Second Anglo-Dutch War was a lack of timber, England's forests had become exhausted of the very large trees needed for the production of masts and keels and this necessitated a reliance on supplies from the Baltic, supplies which required trade routes that were closed to English merchants by Dutch blockade, and the English had no way of building or repairing more ships to re-open the routes and protect the merchants. Naval stores of English wood were also empty as the timber they contained had not been replaced with suitably aged and treated supplies.

However this situation was only a short term problem caused by a lack of large trees. With the end of the war the shortage was rectified by the maturing of forests and better management of naval dockyards. But it is not difficult to imagine the situation where England did not have its depleted forests to fall back on at all, and the ramifications of a successful Spanish Armada, a situation in which the Spanish were able to burn down the forests. This would have forced a reliance on imports alone, if England could afford to do so, and with all the money in the treasury this could not be as cost effective as the nurture of nature, and in no way could a meaningful fleet be assembled able to complete or contest any task or any enemy outside of local waters.

This would have prevented English maritime expansion, seeing England sail off not into the golden age of sail in the 18th and 19th century, but into the dustbin of history.

Beaver, Hunting and the Politics of Violence before the English Civil War
Albion, Forests and Sea Power


The Military Implications of the Alaska Purchase

By John Ash

The US state of Alaska is full of oddities, it is by far the largest state in the United States, but 48th in terms of population size. 737,000 people live in an area almost 646,000 square miles in size - half of whom reside in the same city, Anchorage, and another 33,000 reside in the states capital, Juneau. The state is home to the largest mountain in North America, let alone the US. There are no less than 22 official languages, 23 if Spanish is inevitable included, and more Alaskans speak some traditionally Russia/Central Asian languages and dialects than Russians. Perhaps the story of the states history and acquisition is also the most interesting of all the US states as well, Alaska became the 49th fully recognised US State in January 1959. However, the US have been involved in Alaska for much of the previous century, and the state was the centre of a rivalry between two powerful empires.

Hi-res scan of the purchase slip: US National Archives

Purchased for 2 cents an acre, a total price of $7.2m ($121m in 2015 USD), the Russians sold because of fears of military action. The British had defeated them in Crimea, and did not wish to lose Russian Alaska without compensation or a gain elsewhere. Russia was facing economic hard times, and was in a large amount of debt to lending families such as the Rothschild's. The increasing strength, population, and relevance of Canada as a British possession and of the colonies as staging areas and important naval bases (such as Vancouver Island) meant that if Britain wanted to, they could seize and easily defend Russian America while Russia itself was unable to effectively garrison, fund or defend the colony. The Russians approached the British, hoping they would buy Alaska, but they were not interested in the sale. Presumably, the Russians also realised the implications of selling an area which they considered to be a prime target of acquisition for the British, their main rival on the global stage, to the British. Instead, the United States were considered for sale, specifically to limit British ambitions and the potency of the Royal Navy base at Esquimalt, from the Russian point of view. It was thought, that encasing British territory with land owned and administered by a victorious Union would achieve this.

The implications of continued Russian or British ownership of Alaska therefore have to be considered, as both Empires had a stake on the province. Although Britain showed little interest in acquiring the territory and incorporating Alaska into their Canadian holdings, the idea must have been given some fleeting consideration, and the Russians predicted that the seizure of Alaska to be a potential British war aim. In addition, the Americans wished to acquire British Colombia, so Alaska would be joined to US proper. The British did not want this, so accepted the province into Canada proper.

While it seems like Britain did not wish to act, they certainly took measures against the outcome of the sale. Relations between both Britain and Russia and Britain and the United States were less than cordial at the time, and the threat to Canada posed by the occupation of Alaska by anyone other than Britain must have been realised.

Clearly, considering the lack of interest in the sale from the British, an American owned Alaska was less of a threat that an Alaska as a colony of the Russian Empire, plus the US was still reeling from a destructive civil conflict, and while the victorious military forces were seemingly formidable, in reality, the war weary Union Army would likely have struggled in an almost immediate war with anyone. That said, the US acquisition of Alaska remembering that the bulk of natural resources were still undiscovered at the time, could only improve their regional power at the expense of the two Empires.

The United States was not the threat it could have been, and Russia was willing to give up Alaska and a threatening position along the border of one of Britain's most important possession therefore the investment and assimilation of the territory could arguably have been seen as faff and unnecessary. However, the yet to be discovered natural resources in Alaska would likely have spared Britain much economic hardship in the early 20th Century just a they had spared the American economy in the same period, allowing for a better funding armed forces in the interwar period, and perhaps more developed colonies better able to withstand Japanese aggression. There would likely be a naval base there, to keep Russia and later Japan in check, but the Aleutian Campaign would likely have become an important Anglo-Canadian campaign and an unwelcome distraction from Europe and the Far East.

Moving a bit left-field, perhaps a British owned Alaska and the wealth uncovered would ultimately result in a richer and more powerful Canada, a real rival to the United States even in today's age? Wealth attracts people, so maybe even the population gap could have narrowed? Could Canada have had even more of an involvement in the world wars? The fourth major Ally? Could Mackenzie King have been photographed sitting in a fourth chair at Yalta and Potsdam?

The implications of continued Russian rule must also be considered. Just how the United States and Britain/Canada would have dealt with the most powerful communist nation ever seen as a neighbour, especially in the height of the Cold War, can only be speculated, but an invasion of Alaska by Anglo-American forces in the 1920s is not too far fetched. Neither is the concept of the territory becoming the last refuge of White Russia, one propped up for decades with aid flowing in directly from Canada and the United States, and nor would a continual Cuba style confrontation. Would Canada have become independent? Just how much would Britain and Canada, both nations strained after a long war and with the former bankrupt, deal with their new enemy on their border?

However, it is highly likely that had Soviet Russia held on to Alaska, they would benefit greatly, as flooding Canada with American, British and Canadian built lend lease equipment and hopping across the border into Russian Alaska would be the easiest route of supply. In reality, the Allies developed an airborne highway formed from a string of dozens of bases in Canada and Alaska to supply Russia with aircraft and to function as a traffic route for Allied officials. The ALSIB (ALaska-SIBerian air road) was successful, but had Russia kept hold of Alaska, and provided that Russia was united in one form or another, a direct supply route across Bering Strait could have been established, and the future state would surely have been the perfect staging and test area for supplies and equipment bound for Russia, and for collaboration on joint projects and conferences. Fairbanks in Alaska was almost chosen as the venue for the Yalta conference, and the relatively safety of the region would have made its location as a conference venue almost a dead cert had Alaska been Russian.

P-70 Night Fighters (A variant of the A-20 Attack Bomber) line the strip at Nome Airfield, Alaska: US Library of Congress

Regardless, a United States that did not own Alaska, lacking the gold and other resources, would have been considerably worse off, and even more unprepared for war. What is the likelihood of a cash strapped US suspending trade deals with Japan, no matter how belligerent? Perhaps the largest 'What if' in modern military history?

While the extent of Alaska's military value in reality can be summed up as a air supply route, a pot of Gold for the US economy, and the staging area for a successful (but small and backwater) campaign against the Japanese, the potential for the state to have a more significant impact on military history appears to have been there.


Assorted War Stories

By John Ash

In the summer of 2014 I volunteered every Monday as a care assistant for a Tunbridge Wells based charity that as an extra to the amazing service it already provides. That summer (and in 2015 as well, although I could no longer take part), the charity decided to take a number of elderly or disabled people from the Tunbridge Wells area, and take them to the beach at Herne Bay for the day. The charity pays for the fuel, a fish and chip lunch, a few drinks, and an ice cream - this also extends to the drivers who gave up their time for nothing. The trippers are taken all up the sea front and back, or to the pier, or to the coastal gardens. Once again, this costs them nothing. They all enjoy themselves, and one lady I will always remember from one of the 2014 groups, who had not been to the any beach since 1948. Below are a few of the stories I was able to gather from participants. These people never wrote down their stories, no one asks them to make a TV show, few museums are interested in their letters. Many of these people are well into old age and may not ever be in a position to tell anyone young, let alone a historian, amateur or otherwise, what their war was like. The fact remains that anyone 90 or above, and most people 85 or above, fought in the war or had important roles in the war effort. We have about 10-15 years left with these people, at most, and as a generation we should try to collect their unique stories before it is too late.

They will always be welcome on this forum.

Bob - 90

Bob came down to Herne Bay on one of the first seaside trips, one the same trip was a lady from from New Zealand with some affiliation to the Maori Battalion described above (and in fact inspired that article idea) and who played at Wimbledon and was a keen All Blacks fan. another lady was in the RAF working the radars in 1940 - she met Prince Charles and Camilla early in 2014. Sadly I didn't get a chance to chat to these ladies, or the others on the trip, but I did get the opportunity to talk to Bob. Bob is 90, he cannot walk unassisted, he is frail, but full of life, he spent all day talking to me and looking at the ships, and between those tasks, he was chatting up the young ladies of Herne Bay, telling bad (or dirty) jokes and giving children pennies to put in the rotary clubs charity TV star fairground machine. On any other day he is an unassuming 90 year old, forgotten, rarely given the time of day. But people should talk to him more, after just 5 minutes to talking to Bob over a coffee, he opened up to me. This is his amazing story.

Bob was conscripted into the British Army in 1944. He was a very short man, and not the strongest, so naturally the Army issued him with a Bren Gun - which he claims he can still feel the weight of! He completed much of his training in Maidstone, Kent, and one of his exercises involved scaling a large wall while in full equipment. Bob threw his Bren gun over first, and then climbed over himself. He got a massive ticking off (much cleaner than the words he used!) from his Sergeant for that. Bob was in the Royal West Kent Regiment and after his training he was shipped out to India in 1944 and was part of the 25th Indian Infantry Division (the West Kent's were never part of the 25th, but small elements of Bob's unit (he says groups of 12) were assigned to protect signals troops.) While in India, Bob remembers that the rations were 'God awful', to this day, he hates Asian Food because of his experiences in Asia, and the only real option for him to eat was to trade things for goats, and at Christmas, ducks. Apparently, the food available to officers was equally bad, at Christmas Bob and his friends agreed to invite their officer to dinner with them, and the very grateful officer attended. However, on his return to the mess, the other officers did not believe that anyone could have that good food in the country, and he was promptly ridiculed.

In 1945 the 25th Indian Infantry Division were a key part of a major naval landing in the British invasion of Malaya. Operations Zipper and Tiderace. A large, British led, Allied force was to land in Malaya to set up staging areas for further roll back of Japanese forces, but the surrender of Japan put an end to any serious combat role, and the operations became one of enforcing surrender and repatriation. When the task force some 60 miles off shore, according to Bob, the news first came to the men (around the 4th September) that the Japanese had surrendered. Bob and his friends cheered and the whole boat erupted in celebration, thinking that the landings were cancelled. The Navy thought otherwise. Bob and his mates still had to crawl down nets into landing craft and head towards the Japanese held beach anyway, 'grumbling and b***hing all the way.' The operations were successful.

Bob later served with the Sussex's, and the Devonshire's, and was part of the operations to recapture Singapore and Hong Kong. Although the war was over, and China was an ally, Bob spent a number of nights fending off the Chinese Army while positioned on the border between Hong Kong and China, and helped deserters get across the river to the British administered side. Bob returned to Singapore, and decided he would try and take in the local culture and pull a few girls. He was walking along a road when he met two young, beautiful local girls. Both were wearing tight dress skirts with a slit right the way up the leg. They then turned and spat into the river, 'louder and further than any' man in Bob's unit, and promptly putting Bob off of Singaporean girls for life.

Soon after that, Bob was demobbed in Singapore, and shipped home on the Devonshire, following another heavy cruiser all the way back to Blighty.

Jack - 93

I met Jack on his 93rd birthday and the charity surprised him with a birthday cake, to his tearful amazement.

Jack served in the RAF for 5 years, when I asked if he was a pilot, he loudly and proudly proclaimed "no, I had an important job, I made Spitfires ugly", much to the enjoyment of everyone around. Jack was a ground crewman, and was responsible for the maintenance of his squadron's aircraft, and one of his most memorable roles was cutting the wing tips off of Spitfires and either leaving them cropped short or replacing them with lighter wooden-tipped wing tips. This process, known as clipping, was done to allow Spitfires to outperform the FW190. Clipping reduced drag and increased speed, especially at low level, and dramatically increased roll rate at the cost of a slower overall turn time (which was still faster than the FW190).

After his capture and escape, the infamous ace Douglas Bader became Jack's commanding officer and stayed with him through 145 Squadron, 23 Squadron and the Fighter Leader's School. Jack enjoyed a less than pleasant relationship with his new C.O, and described Bader as a "b**tard to his ground crew", but confessed that "you needed someone as bad as a German to beat a German" and that he was a hero amongst heroes.

Philip Keun - 102

Philip, despite his age, was in amazingly good health and sound of mind. Sadly, he only wished to talk about some of his experiences in the war, as he is still troubled by others. Before the war, Philip went to Clifton School and later Cambridge University. Whilst in school, he played cricket in 1930 at Lords Cricket Ground, against Tonbridge School. He did not do very well and was bowled out with the first ball. He always wore his Clifton tie, and sure enough, he was wearing it when he visited Herne Bay.

Philip worked out in Ceylon/Sri Lanka before the war as a civilian and worked there throughout the late 1930's. He was only called up and mobilised once the Japanese entered the war. Although he cannot remember what unit he was in at first, his role was as a liaison officer between, working between his brigade and it's parent division in India until it was deployed to Malaya.

He was then given command of a force of 1,000 Indian soldiers, and was he tasked with building defences and port facilities along the Malayan coast. He saw no combat but played a vital support role. While building a new jetty in a port somewhere in Malaya, he witnessed a surreal event. In the harbour was a large Dutch merchant ship and a British destroyer that was dry dock. A British submarine surfaced outside the port and slowly sailed in, and then fired a pair of torpedoes, one struck and sank the Dutch ship while the second breached the newly repaired dry dock. The dry dock flooded but the destroyer, still under repair, somehow stayed afloat. The submarine left and slipped under the surface.

Other than that, Philip didn't talk about anything to do with the war, he did not confirm what happened to him, and I did not press the issue. I suggest that he was either captured or withdrawn. Long after the war, in 1964 he returned to work in Sri Lanka, but flight out developed some trouble and landed in Oman. Whilst stranded in Oman, the person sitting next to Philip asked if that was a Clifton tie he was wearing - it turned out that Philip was sat next to the person who had bowled him in 1930!

John (Harry Charles) Skinner - 89

John visited in one of the later groups, and he has Alzheimers. He doesn't remember much about the war, which he thinks is a shame, because he'd love to have told more people about it. Below is what he does remember from his war.

John was called up into the British Army in the late 30's, and served in the Royal Corps of Signals and 'fought' (his commas, not mine) in Italy, (he thinks Salerno) and in India, Burma, and Singapore. His main role was to support amphibious landings. As he was a signals man he was always in the second line of landing craft, although this did not necessarily mean it was safe! He landed after the first wave and set up, established and ran communications for the ongoing landing before being withdrawn back to the ship. Although landing in combat zones, John never did any fighting, although his role was as important.

John was sent out to India, and was attached to 25th Indian Infantry Division. Although the main landing was in Malaya, John couldn't remember if he was involved in that or in a secondary landing elsewhere. Nonetheless, he was preparing for a landing in either Singapore or Malaya when the Japanese surrendered when he was 200 miles from the landing site - but he was told to land as normal anyway. Soon after the war, he was in Singapore, and he was given the option to stay in Singapore to round up, disarm and repatriate Japanese prisoners throughout the Far East or to go back to North India, as India was closer to England, he opted for that.

In early 1946, John and 3 of his mates went out in the Jungle for a walk - they'd always wanted to but couldn't before because of the Japanese presence, they got lost and were found 3 days later. They were all in a fairly bad shape and now terrified of the jungle. 18 months after that, he was demobbed and sent home. He became a stage actor and met his wife, Margaret, in a show after the war. They always performed in the same show after they first met, and married in 1955. They celebrated their golden anniversary in 2015.


Mahan, for Dummies

By Oliver Thébault

Renowned American naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan

When talking about Naval history, or at least the history of naval thought one name pops up a lot more than most. That name is Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US Naval Officer come leading naval strategist of his generation. But what did Mahan say?

In 1890 The Influence of Seapower upon History was published. The title was a comprehensive study of 17th and 18th century naval strategy and focused mainly on the English, Dutch and French experiences of naval warfare in the period. Mahan developed a concept known as 'command of the sea' by citing examples of British and Dutch strategies developed in the age of sail. Control of the sea basically entailed three things: One, the destruction of the enemies fleet; two, securing ones own communications routes; three, securing ones own trade routes.

Another of Mahan's core ideas was the blockade, which following a successful fleet on fleet on action, would be impossible to properly lift.

For Mahan the battle fleet was imperative, without developing and deploying one you could only expect failure against similarly capable or traditionally superior enemies at sea. He believed guerre de course, (literally, 'war of the chase') and, handelskrieg ('trade war'), effectively commerce raiding, was ultimately ineffective and an act of folly and desperation for the nations most heavily committed to it historically as a strategy. Privateering ports could be blockaded by far fewer ships than needed to rival a fleet at sea, allowing your enemy to be more sparing in their deployments and therefore able to maintain effective relief on station - lengthening the blockade, or even making it unending. At sea, convoy systems were adopted, and these greatly limited the damage which could be caused by small groups or single ships raiding merchant shipping. Convoys could be protected by a smaller number of naval ships, and could mass their own firepower against a threat. One salient example of the effectiveness of the convoy system points to the French Navy in the 18th century, which generally sailed into from disaster while coming from another. They pursued a guerre de course policy and generally attempted to avoid fleet on fleet actions as they often ended in defeat. That is, until the American War of Independence.

The Royal navy was tied down across two continents against several different opponents. The French seized their chance and sent a large fleet to the Americas and the resultant Battle of Chesapeake was among the most decisive battles in the conflict. The superior French force was able to gain control of American waters, preventing the British from relieving Cornwallis at Yorktown. This effect, generated from a fleet action, was had and successfully enjoyed while years of commerce raiding failed to prevent the consistent support of British/Allied troops. The action showed that in the 18th century at least guerre de course did not challenge sea control, decisive fleet actions did. It also showed how a powerful naval fleet could influence the outcome of a land conflict.

Battle of Chesapeake (1781) an example of a decisive fleet on fleet engagement which lost Britain control of American waters.

Successful fleet on fleet engagements removed any opposition at sea allowing a blockade policy to be pursued, then the shutting down of enemy ports could be completed, preventing trade and privateering. Blockades were highly successful effectively shutting off the enemy from the rest of the world and badly damaging their economy, and the only consistently effective way to defeat a large force send to blockade you is with a fleet action, and not with raids or blockade runners. The effectiveness of the blockade can be seen within the British experience, Britain knew it could not fight the full force of Napoleons Army on equal terms, but in an era where sea based trade and communications vastly outpaced what could be done on land, the blockade of French waters was a highly successful strategy. Both French internal and international trade was severely affected all the while the French Navy and French ports were put under British blockades. Superior British forces outside important harbours such as Brest and La Rochelle also badly hampered the operations of the French Navy, which on paper at least, was still a relatively powerful adversary. Fleets were unable to leave their ports in a battle formation, meaning, that any serious attempt to break the blockade would fall heavily in British favour.


The Battle of Jutland (1916), Speer failed to deal a decisive blow against the Grand Fleet, he was still hopelessly outnumbered in spite of the heavy losses suffered by the Royal Navy's battle-cruisers. On the other hand, Jellicoe failed in achieving the decisive victory needed to threaten the German coastline, therefore the stalemate at sea continued, which in turn allowed the stalemate on land to continue.

There are certain limitations with Mahan's theories, for one they were written with examples taken from an age before radio communications or submarines. With technological developments pursuing a commerce raiding policy became a much more viable option, submarines made ideal blockade runners and through monitoring radio communications the locations of merchant shipping at sea could easily be ascertained. Before privateers would often aimlessly scour the oceans, now shipping could be easily tracked through its radio messages.

Before and after the First World War most of the major powers of the world followed Mahan's ideas, and the Japanese were particularly keen to adopt his theories. However it is dangerous to follow Mahanian ideas to the letter. The Japanese failed to re-adjust their strategic thought after WW1 and as a result they largely ignored the possibility of being cut off from isolated island possessions by submarines. Going so far as failing to destroy the submarines based at Pearl Harbour, instead focussing on the battleships. The Japanese were so set on decisive fleet on fleet actions they also failed to adequately escort their merchant shipping, meaning they were cut off from vital supplies from their conquests in China. In contrast the Americans realised the need to adapt and as well as large fleet on fleet actions, characterised by an emphasis on carrier borne aircraft as the main weapon of the fleet, and they were able to destroy the Japanese Navy. This was achieved whilst simultaneously mounting a highly successful submarine campaign against the Japanese merchant fleet.

That said, despite of the limitations of his theories, ignoring Mahan can be a very dangerous. The Germans realised after WW1 that they never could match the Royal Navy in size and instead invested heavily in submarines and commerce raiders. The memories of the largely indecisive battles of the First World War dissuaded the Germans from building a large battlefleet, the surface fleet became the least significant element of the entire German war machine and its in reality fairly sound leadership was constrained by the changeable will of Hitler and kneejerk reactions to successes and failures caused directly by a mixture of luck and their policies. The German surface fleet, excepting commerce raiders, was pretty much just an assembly of effective, but ill-used follys. Ships like the Scharnhorst and Tirptiz were constructed for pride and patriotism only, and intended for commerce raiding rather than fleet actions, and the German Navy never had enough cruisers and destroyers to support their fleet effectively.

As you may expect, this was not entirely successful, throughout the war they were chronically short of surface vessels and what capital ships they did have were misused and sortied individually or in very small groups meaning they were easily isolated and destroyed by superior forces. Their U-Boat war was initially highly successful, however adoption of convoys and technological meant their efforts were increasingly futile, by the end of the war the German U-Boat force had suffered a fatality rate of around 75% of the total number of men sent to sea. The failure of the Germans to contest the Atlantic with an attempt to deal a decisive blow against Britain's battle fleet was a key factor in their defeat. If they had sent Bismark, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Graf Zeppelin together, supported by the pocket battleships as well as cruisers and destroyers, in a Scheer-esque attempt to huntdown and destroy isolated British naval units and small fleets, combined with the efforts of their submarine forces against Merchant shipping they may have had more success - although it is unlikely that the British Home Fleet would have ever been defeated by Germany's navy, but the loss of capital ships and their escorts in smaller actions would make the task of the commerce raiders easier.

Another limitation in Mahan's theories was the growth of continental Empires. Before the quickest way to send communication or trade across a continent was by sea. Sea trade links could be severed by enemy blockade. But with the advent of railways and telegraphs this was no longer the case. All the trade infrastructure was now land based, out of the reach of the navy. This is certainly true of countries such as modern day USA who have large internal trade networks accessing local resources. With the technology of the 18th century this would have been difficult, however in the 19th century this was another matter. Products from say, an iron ore mine which in the 18th century could have taken days to reach a smelting facility could in the 19th century be delivered in hours thanks to the railways. The same goes for the transport of military hardware, and also communications.

Does this mean Mahan is no longer important?

The answer is a typical history one... Yes, and no.

On the one hand the continental powers of today, India, China, USA and Russia would be relatively immune from a blockade and would be able to trade by land relatively easily, however without gaining command of the sea any attack from example China against the USA would be impossible.

It is still possible to pursue Mahanian policies today, for example Europe in any struggle against Russia could find its self 'blockaded' by Russian submarines who would prowl trade routes sinking vital advanced weapon systems shipments from the USA. As this seems like a guerre de course tactic as opposed to a blockade one it warrants further explanation. With the US navy dominating the open oceans, it would be wise to concentrate the submarine force into several powerful wolfpacks at strategic locations such as in the North Sea, English Channel and entrance to the Mediterranean. These wolf packs would be able to secure local control of the sea and their size and potency would give the US Navy serious second thoughts as to entering the area.

Luckily for us today the technological and size disparity between Russian and combined forces of NATO means that for the foreseable future Russia will be unable to successfully pursue the policy as described above. The Russian submarine force is quite large although altogether quite weak, being mostly made up of older and less capable boats. Whereas NATO possesses highly potent hunter-killer boats and a greater number of surface vessels with advanced ASW capability.

Chinese moves in the Pacific can be seen as an extension of Mahan's theory. China seeks to secure its 'coastal' (by the loosest definition available) waters with a chain of offshore naval bases. This would prevent a rapid blockade of the Chinese mainland and also allows the not quite ocean-going Chinese navy to contest large areas of the sea with much less difficulty than moving a supplying a fleet through the area.

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 Post subject: Re: A Medley of Military Miscellany, I: Mahan & Malta
Unread postPosted: 07 Sep 2015, 10:07 
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Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this Medley article. They seem to suit the what ifs better! The collection of war stories was interesting, and I never knew about the shipbuilding forests or the Malta submarines.

Question with Mahan though. Commerce raiding obviously became very successful with the rise of aircraft and submarines, both new developments. But the use of cruisers & auxiliary cruisers and PT boats/destroyers was effective as well, and the technology was around much earlier, and in the golden age of piracy, converted vessels were a huge threat.

So why did Mahan not consider commerce raiding to be as viable as fleet actions? Fleet actions were not always possible, even for the powers such as Britain and similar countries, but raiding is always possible. Seems to me that a regional garrison could easily be nullified by forcing it to scatter chasing for just one raider, and a small group of raiders could easily tie down a fleet and take advantage of the new vulnerabilities of its ports.

 Post subject: Re: A Medley of Military Miscellany, I: Mahan & Malta
Unread postPosted: 09 Sep 2015, 14:15 
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Imperator wrote:

So why did Mahan not consider commerce raiding to be as viable as fleet actions? Fleet actions were not always possible, even for the powers such as Britain and similar countries, but raiding is always possible. Seems to me that a regional garrison could easily be nullified by forcing it to scatter chasing for just one raider, and a small group of raiders could easily tie down a fleet and take advantage of the new vulnerabilities of its ports.

On a small scale commerce raiding does work, however when it comes to the strategic point of view it isn't that effective.

The problem if you do not contest sea control your ports would be blockaded meaning that commerce raiding would be ineffective as you can't get the commerce raiders into open waters. This is exactly what happened to the German surface fleet in WW2 and the French in the Napoleonic Wars.

It is quite easy for an enemy with a vastly superior fleet to adequately escort convoys ect. meaning that even your blockade runners would be of little use. This also happened to the Germans in WW2, particularly with developments in ASW.

Torpedo boats were envisioned to be able to break blockades by Mahan in his plan to defend the USA against Britian, however he also advocated concentrating the US fleet so it could fight a decisive action against the British.

He realised it was much better to concentrate his force into one fleet which could match that of the British rather than split it up into penny packets to protect trivial possessions.

Developments in technology soon meant that things like torpedo boats would be hopelessly vulnerable against ships which could blockade from miles offshore. The same happened to submarines with things like Sonar. The fact remains, anything leaving a harbour is at a disadvantage to anything at sea, the harbour is basically a choke point.

A good analogy of a blockade if you are more used to ground based warfare is your troops standing in line at the bottom of a mountain pass waiting for the enemy to come out. Because the pass is narrow the enemy has to come out in column, and get gun down by your people who are in line.

Just recently a Russian submarine was caught shadowing and taking sound recordings of an RN sub leaving Faslane. Anything leaving a harbour is vulnerable, the enemy knows where the harbour is, there are vessels in it, and the vessels have to leave at some point.

the only way to contest sea control is to elimnate the enemies capacity strike back, this means wiping out their fleet. This allows you a free reign to mount a blockade of their ports.

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