Great Encounters

Patrick O’Brian

  • The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan
    Hutchinson, 292 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 09 173771 0

John Keegan’s book is about the principles, strategy and tactics of warfare at sea and their evolution as it is exemplified in four great battles, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and a critical period in that long struggle the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a strangely mixed book, some parts being quite remarkably good and quite unhackneyed, others dealing with matters that have been handled again and again, and doing so with no great originality.

Trafalgar has been written about by great numbers of very well qualified people, from Clarke and McArthur in 1809 to Tom Pocock in 1988: this imposing mass of books, together with the place of Nelson and of the battle in the English tradition, have caused John Keegan to approach the subject with awe, and awe alas has led to a stilted, almost official kind of writing.

For the fight itself, in which 27 British ships of the line in two roughly parallel columns attacked 33 belonging to the French and their Spanish allies in a confused line to leeward, Keegan does not appear to add anything to what has already been said, nor does he clarify what is perhaps inevitably obscure. Like all other writers, he states that 18 enemy ships were taken, that four of these were carried into Gibraltar, and that foul weather and various accidents caused the loss of the rest; while from more recent research he gives the butcher’s bill: 4408 of the enemy killed, 2545 wounded, about seven thousand taken prisoner, while the British had 449 killed and 1241 wounded.

It may be that Mr Keegan, a military historian, was not the ideal person to write about Trafalgar: his notions of a brace and many other things belonging to a sailing ship are imprecise, and in speaking of Nelson’s plan of attack, aimed at breaking the enemy line and forcing a pell-mell battle, he stresses its unorthodoxy and even recklessness. Unorthodox it certainly was, since the Fighting Instructions insisted that battles were to be fought by fleets drawn up in parallel lines, the ships blazing away with their broadsides. But unexpected or novel it was not. John Clerk of Eldin’s Essay on Naval Tactics had been printed as early as 1782, reissued in 1790 and 1797 and widely circulated among sea officers. Duncan, who broke the Dutch line at Camperdown, acknowledged his debt to Clerk; the idea was in the air, and Villeneuve, the French commander, foresaw that Nelson would use the same tactics at Trafalgar.

Yet Keegan’s own discipline does allow him to make some unusually valuable remarks about the line-of-battle ship as a floating fortress, a powerful, mobile and economical artillery position. Nelson’s 27 ships carried 2232 guns, six times the number Bonaparte had at Waterloo and almost all guns of far greater calibre. Nelson’s canon needed about 14,000 men to work them, their food and water amounting to 11 pounds a head. If these same guns had had to be moved by land they would have required 50,000 gunners, 30,000 horses, and about 375 tons of food and fodder a day.

From Trafalgar the book moves on to Jutland, that deeply unsatisfactory battle, but it does so without speaking of the immense changes that had come over the Royal Navy in the interval. In Nelson’s time it was possible for William Mitchell, a young seaman, to be flogged round the fleet, to survive it, to pass for lieutenant when he was about thirty, and to reach Nelson’s own rank of vice-admiral of the white in 1814. Yet even before 1814 midshipmen were undergoing an unofficial examination to ‘pass for gentlemen’ as well as the official ‘passing for lieutenant’: and by 1914 the gap between quarterdeck and lower deck was wide indeed. Nor does Keegan deal with the ferocious discord in the Navy, when the service was divided between those who supported Fisher and those who supported Beresford, with lamentable effects on initiative and co-operation. Nor has he anything to say about the suppression of the Pollen range-finder, which might have given British gunnery that decisive superiority over the German which it so fatally lacked. Yet he does deal with general development through the 19th century, the transition from wood to iron, steel and armour, the rise of Germany, the coming of the Dreadnought and her progeny, and of the arms race. For all these vast changes, however, there were still many links between Trafalgar and Jutland. One of them was that in spite of moving at much greater speed and fighting at much greater distances, the Royal Navy still clung to its signal flags – a link that unhappily had great importance in the coming battle.

In 1916 the German High Seas Fleet was blockaded, and had long been blockaded, by a superior force of battleships under Jellicoe at Scapa Flow and the Moray Firth and of battlecruisers under Beatty in the Firth of Forth. Scheer, the new German commander, decided that if he waited any longer the Royal Navy’s superiority would become even greater; in mid-May therefore he sent out a force of submarines to lie off the British bases and at the end of the month he ordered Hipper to sea with the battlecruisers, following them himself with the battleships. His plan was to steer north and draw the Royal Navy out so that his submarines might torpedo some and that he might sink others by gunfire.

Naval Intelligence knew of his sending out the submarines on 16 May and on 30 May they intercepted his orders to the main German fleet: Jellicoe and Beatty were therefore on their way even before Hipper had left his anchorage. Beatty’s six battlecruisers were accompanied by four fast, powerful battleships: they ran untouched through the line of submarines and steered for the Skaggerak. A blunder on the Admiralty’s part led Jellicoe to believe that the Germans were still in port nine hours after they had left, so Beatty was astonished when he met Hipper’s squadron at 14 hours on 31 May. On sighting them he threw out a signal, the traditional hoist of flags, directing the battleships towards the Germans. The battleships did not see the signal and carried on to meet Jellicoe. Beatty therefore took his lightly-armoured ships into battle without them. Hipper turned in the direction of the main German fleet; Beatty followed and at 15.45 the action between the battlecruisers began.

The German range-finders and German gunnery were better than the English and very soon Beatty’s flagship the Lion was disabled, while the battlecruiser Indefatigable was sunk. The light forces on either side engaged, and now at last Beatty’s fast battleships, realising their mistake, came back at full speed and opened fire with their 15-inch guns. Although Hipper sank yet another battlecruiser, it looked as though he was about to be destroyed. But at 16.30 the main German fleet came into sight and ten minutes later Beatty hoisted the signal to head north for Jellicoe. This time the signal was seen, but an ambiguous flag was misunderstood: the battleships delayed their turn and two were hit.

Shortly after this both main fleets engaged at a distance of about eight miles, a confused battle in poor visibility with Jellicoe trying to cut Scheer off from his base and Scheer manoeuvring to reach it. In the smoke, the haze and the twilight the fleets lost contact for a while, but they came together again in the late evening and there was some murderous fighting. When darkness fell, Scheer got clean away and returned to port, never to leave it again. In spite of having run the Germans claimed the victory: they had sunk three battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers and eight destroyers, and they had killed 6097 men, wounding about 500 more, all for the loss of one old battleship, one battlecruiser, four light cruisers and three torpedo-boats, with 2551 dead and about 500 wounded. This could be explained away: in spite of their heavier armour, ten of their capital ships had been very badly damaged. The Royal Navy still had a great superiority, and that superiority was growing; yet even so, when the news of Jutland reached London, H.A.L. Fisher records that it created ‘a sensation of unforgettable gloom’.

Having dealt with a battle in which long-range gunnery, armour and armour-piercing shells were almost everything, Keegan turns to Midway, a most striking example of the entirely new age in which aircraft and the aircraft carrier became the deciding factors in naval warfare. This seems to me by far the best part of the book: here his writing is sharp, clear, unadorned and he gives a perspicuous account of a most complex chain of events, in their context: a difficult thing to do even with unlimited space.

The Royal Navy had used aircraft-carriers in 1918 and the vessel had so developed that by 1932 152 planes, launched from two large United States Navy carriers, raided Pearl Harbour, catching the Pacific Fleet unawares and in theory destroying it. On 7 December 1941 the Japanese did the same in fact. They sank five capital ships, sank or severely damaged eight cruisers and destroyers, destroyed 106 aircraft and killed 2400 men. They accomplished this with 343 aircraft: bombers, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers and fighters, from six carriers lying 275 miles north of Pearl Harbour. But it so happened that the three American carriers were away at sea.

Pearl Harbour was the beginning of a series of extraordinary Japanese successes in the Pacific and South-East Asia. After the Allies’ defeat in the battle of the Java Sea in February 1942 they had nothing left but these three carriers and a fourth, the Yorktown, which had joined them from the Atlantic fleet. A fifth, the Hornet, came out in April, and on the 18th she, together with the Enterprise, sailed to a point 668 miles from Tokyo. There they just managed to launch 16 heavy B-25s, which bombed the Japanese capital and flew on to land in China. The planes may not have done much material damage, but psychologically they shook the Japanese to the core. The sacred Emperor had been endangered.

The ships from which the bombers flew had come through the gap in the Japanese perimeter north of Hawaii and south of the Aleutians, a gap in which Midway lies, a small island a thousand miles west-north-west of Hawaii. On 25 May American Intelligence told Admiral Nimitz that the Japanese would attack the Aleutians on 3 June and Midway the next day. Yamamoto, the Japanese C-in-C, was immensely superior in strength, but his plans had been based on the assumption that his attack would be a surprise, and that the Americans would head for the Aleutians as soon as they heard that their garrisons there were under fire. Nimitz had the advantage of foreknowledge and of radar, which the Japanese did not possess.

The American carriers were posted 700 miles north-east of Midway: all immediate reconnaissance was to be carried out from the island. On 3 June the transports, seaplane group and escort of the Japanese Midway force were sighted and desultory bombing began. On 4 June the Japanese struck Midway with 108 aircraft from Nagumo’s four carriers: a destructive but not altogether satisfactory raid. A second would probably be needed before landings could begin. Even before the attack Midway’s planes had found the Japanese carriers and had sent out a message picked up by the Enterprise. Admiral Fletcher in the Yorktown at once ordered the Midway commander ‘to go all out for the carriers’ and the Enterprise and Hornet to head southwest. Everything Midway still possessed – 15 Flying Fortresses, four Marauders and six Avenger torpedo-planes – took off. At about 07.00 the unescorted Marauders and Avengers made their attack: most were shot down, but they did some damage. The Fortresses, bombing from a great height as usual, as usual did nothing. Yet the raid unsettled Nagumo: a second attack on Midway was certainly called for, and the attack would mean re-arming his planes with high-level bombs rather than their present ship-destroying weapons. At 07.15 therefore he ordered the torpedo-planes to be moved below and re-equipped while the planes coming back from the Midway raid landed on the flight-deck. At 07.28 a Japanese aircraft reported ‘what appeared to be ten enemy surface ships’ 240 miles from Midway, bearing 10°, course 150°, speed over 20 knots. At first Nagumo did not think the report significant. At 07.45 he changed his mind and said that those planes which had not yet changed their torpedoes for bombs should retain them and at 08.10 he called for more details. The plane replied that the ships were cruisers and destroyers; then at 18.20 it added that they had a carrier with them. This was the York-town, and she was just about to launch 12 torpedo and 17 dive-bombers.

At this point Midway sent a forlorn hope of 11 old, slow aircraft to the attack: they did no physical harm but they distracted Nagumo for several valuable minutes. Admiral Spruance, commanding the Enterprise and Hornet, had been following the action with the utmost attention, and it appeared to him that an attack launched at once might catch the Japanese just as they were recovering and refuelling their aircraft. So although the enemy were near or even beyond the point of no return for some of his planes, he decided upon an ‘all or nothing’ stroke and between 07.02 and 08.06 he launched 67 dive-bombers, 29 torpedo-bombers and 20 fighters. The pilots expected to reach their target at 09.20. But at 09.05 Nagumo, warned of their approach, changed course 90°, steering north-east at 20 knots. The leader of the Hornet’s dive-bombers thought the Japanese must be closing in on Midway and he headed in that direction: some managed to reach the island; others, who had enough fuel, returned to the carrier. All the fighters – short-range aircraft – came down in the sea and were lost. The torpedo-bombers, however, caught sight of smoke on the horizon and flew straight at the Japanese fleet. They were all shot down. The Enterprise’s torpedo-bombers were almost equally unfortunate: they too found their target, but they were separated from their fighter escort and the Japanese Zeros brought down ten out of the 14. The Yorktown launched a smaller force somewhat later in the day. Her planes too had difficulty in finding the Japanese, and those who did find them lost heavily, scoring no hits: the Zeros brought them all down.

Yet these attacks had at least impaired the Japanese fleet’s formation. By 10.00, when the raids were over, the carriers lay far apart, one of them, the Hiryu, being out of sight of the flagship; furthermore their fighter-screen, instead of being high overhead was either on deck refuelling or brought down to sea-level by the torpedo-bombers, which necessarily made their attack as low as possible. Nagumo, however, now knew almost exactly where the American carriers were, and in spite of his cluttered decks he had 93 planes ready to destroy them. This overwhelming force was to take off at 10.30.

But at 09.55 Lt Commander McClusky, the leader of the Enterprise’s dive-bomber squadron, which had lost its way, noticed a Japanese destroyer’s high-speed wake far below. It led directly to the fleet, and shortly after 10.20 McClusky saw the four great carriers: Agaki, Soryu and Kaga were steering north-west with the Hiryu farther ahead. There were no Zeros in the sky and visibility was good. He led his 37 Devastators in a 70° dive from 14,500 feet at 10.24, just as the first Japanese plane was being launched: two hits were enough to shatter the Agaki, Nagumo’s flagship, and start an appalling fire. The Kaga was hit even harder: she blazed until the evening and sank.

At the same time the Yorktown’s dive-bombers arrived. They had been launched later than the others and their leader had made his own correct calculation of the Japanese position. They attacked the nearest carrier, the Soryu, and between 10.25 and 10.28 they hit her three times, setting her ablaze: her surviving crew, going aboard again, managed to get the fire under control and she limped away at two knots, only to be sunk by the American submarine that had attracted the telltale destroyer in the first place.

In five minutes the balance of power had changed to an almost incredible degree. Nevertheless Nagumo, who had shifted his flag to a destroyer, ordered the one surviving carrier, the Hiryu, to attack. Two waves of aircraft set off. A little after 12.00 the first found the Yorktown and at 12.20 the carrier was motionless and on fire. By 13.40 the blaze had been put out and she was making 20 knots; but ten minutes later the second wave came in and so damaged her that she very nearly capsized. Before the first attack the Yorktown had sent off ten bombers to see whether a Japanese carrier had survived. At 14.45 they found the Hiryu with two battleships and a numerous escort a hundred miles away: a little later 24 dive-bombers took off from the Enterprise and hit her four times. Although she was badly damaged her engines were untouched and she fled, blazing, at 30 knots. She survived another bombing from Flying Fortresses, but the fires could not be put out and she was scuttled on 5 June. On 6 June the wounded Yorktown sank, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine; and on the same day the Japanese, in full retreat, lost a cruiser. The end of the battle of Midway was not the end of the war in the Pacific, nor anything like it, but it was the turn of the tide, perhaps the most extraordinary turn the world has ever seen.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which saw the rise of the submarine to an even greater importance, cannot be summarised and brought into sharp focus. Midway, which exemplifies the rise of the carrier and of the encounter so remote that the admirals never see one another, can be counted in hours, the Atlantic only in months and years; and here the account is necessarily of a different nature – a long series of shocking figures (in 1942 the U-boats sank 7,750,000 tons of shipping) and of changes in strategy, equipment and counter-measures. To give his narrative a more definite shape Keegan follows two Atlantic convoys at the height of the submarine war. They were attacked by 40 U-boats, hunting in packs, and they lost 22 ships for the sinking of one U-boat: yet here again there was a turn of the tide, far less spectacular but equally decisive. For although between May 1943 and May 1945 U-boats sank 227 merchantmen, no less than 534 U-boats were sunk by escorts, aircraft or even the merchantmen themselves. Clearly, it was no longer a profitable undertaking. In his conclusion, which is not unlike a guide to Armageddon, Keegan tentatively foresees naval warfare of the future taking place on oceans with never a ship to be seen: nothing but vast nuclear-powered submarines of unlimited range carrying missiles of unlimited malignance.