‘Lessons Learnt’

Admiral Sir William James.

In 1962 Admiral Sir William James, former Room 40 handler, Naval Assistant to First Sea Lord, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth (among many other appointments) wrote a rather remarkable letter to The Naval Review:

SIR,-In his letter under ‘Lessons Learnt’ (N.R., July, 1961, p. 314) Captain Roskill says that ‘in the case of the Official Military History series the Government decided that, as most of the sources used were confidential and likely to remain so for many years, the author’s references should be printed only in a specially prepared edition’. It might be inferred that, in thirty or forty years time, these sources will be released for study by historians or biographers and provide material for new books on the war. I do not think that this will happen. I do not think that these confidential sources will ever see the light. If in forty years time the Admiralty announced that all documents covering the two world wars were now open to inspection I do not think there would be a single caller.
I say this because, whilst interest in the personalities of the statesmen and commanders of the armed forces, and in the general course of major campaigns and battles, remains constant (normal education includes campaigns and battles from Caesar to Wellington and will eventually include the two world wars), interest on the lower level, the detailed conduct of a war at headquarters, soon wanes and eventually fades altogether. This fading today is accelerated by the advent of the atomic age. When the methods of waging war and the weapons were more or less static Admiralty confidential records might be of some use when another war broke out, but methods are now changing so rapidly that Admiralty officers would be wasting their time if they sought guidance in confidential records of earlier wars.
The most cogent reason for doubting whether release forty years hence would cause a flutter is that books about both world wars now fill a good sized library. Nearly every one of the men who were responsible for the Grand Strategy and the overall conduct of the campaigns have given full accounts of their stewardship. Sir John Fisher’s [sic] autobiography and letters (recently published by Professor Marder), Churchill’s account of his period at the Admiralty, Lord Wemyss’s autobiography, Jellicoe’s autobiography and the biography of Admiral Oliver leave little untold about the higher direction of the Kaiser’s War. Churchill’s ‘Second World War’, Cunningham’s autobiography and Horton’s biography leave little to be told about the higher direction of Hitler’s War. And for both wars there has been a flood of
books, historical and autobiographical, covering every phase. Full-length books have been written about every minor engagement and about the war service of individual battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
What, then, it is fair to ask, can there be in the confidential records that might in thirty or forty years be of interest to anyone? This is not in any sense a criticism of the Admiralty practice of interning documents. There are many reasons for not releasing for inspection records of the conduct of a war on the departmental level. But in these interned papers there can only be titbits for a historian or biographer
and people who have lived through thirty years of the atomic age will not have any interest in these titbits.

This is perhaps indicative of the Stone Age mentality of history at the time, but given how much paper work James himself must have filled out in the Grand Fleet and at the Admiralty during the war alone it beggars belief that he thought none of it would have been useful. Fortunately for people like me, and I suspect many readers, there has been more than that ‘single caller’ and a lot more than mere ‘titbits’ still waiting to be found in the archives sixty years after release.

‘Prevent the Russian Baltic Fleet from reaching the Far East’

Prince Louis of Battenberg as a Rear-Admiral.

After the Dogger Bank Incident of 20/21 October 1904—where a Russian fleet on its way to the Far East opened fire on British fishing trawlers in the belief that they were Japanese warships—relations between the two Empires were strained. The Royal Navy’s Channel Squadron was ready to attack the Russians where they lay at anchor. The Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear-Admiral His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg, wrote an interesting memorandum on 2 November which is reproduced here:

Assuming that it was decided to use force to prevent the Russian Baltic Fleet from reaching the Far East, the most suitable place would be just to the West and South-West of the Straits of Sunda.

Our Fleet would be near its base at Singapore, whilst the Russian Fleet would be nearing Java, and would have been steaming 3,000 miles against the North East Trade since Reunion would be the last place they could have coaled at. [Added in handwriting:(Russian Colliers have been ordered to Réunion.)]

It may be taken for granted that the Russians would not go through the Straits of Malacca.

If they thought that the route would be barred they would not try to pass through the Straits of Sunda, but would more likely make for the islands to the South-East of Java, where there are many passages through to the North-East and many likely places at which to coal from their own colliers.

A strong Cruiser force would be required to stretch down in a South-Westerly direction from the mouth of the Straits of Sunda.

Moreover, the C. in C., Cape Station should be at Mauritius with one First and two Second Class Cruisers to watch Reunion, besides which the fast ships of the Cruiser Squadron, which would be coming round the Cape, would be able to keep touch with the Russians from Reunion towards Java.

In sufficient time the following ships should rendezvous at Singapore –

BATTLESHIPS –5 from China Station
4 “Duncans” from Mediterranean
9, which should suffice to meet on good terms the five First and two Second Class Russian Battleships.
2 from Home on the way to China as reliefs for the first two
1 (Flagship) from Australia
Second Class Cruisers –4 from China
2 . . East Indies
1 . . Australia
Third Class Cruisers –5 from Australia
2 . . East Indies

One First Class and two Second Class Cruisers from Pacific could come across and be employed either in conjunction with the above force, or, preferably, keep in the China Seas whilst the China Fleet is South.

We must however be prepared to detach some armoured Cruisers to cover the three French vessels of that class at Saigon.

The Russian detachments going through the Mediterranean would have to be dealt with from there.

After despatching the four “Duncans” from the Mediterranean, we should join up the eight “Majestics” from the Channel Fleet to the remaining eight (“Formidables”) of the Mediterranean Fleet, which would suffice to meet the eight First Class, four Second Class, and four Third Class Battleships from Toulon.

Additional ships would have to be sent from Home to mask the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

No count is taken of Germany. If her Fleet had to be considered a General Mobilisation would be necessary, as we should then require every available Battleship in the North Sea.

Update: On a whim I decided to work out who would be in charge of this hypothetical force. The Commander-in-Chief on the China Station was Vice-Admiral Sir Gerard H. U. Noel (seniority of 2 November 1901), who would be the most senior and therefore in supreme command. His second-in-command was Rear-Admiral The Honourable Assheton G. Curzon-Howe (seniority of 23 July 1901). The Commander-in-Chief on the Australian Station was Vice-Admiral Arthur D. Fanshawe (seniority of 25 January 1902, and who would be appointed K.C.B. a week after Battenberg wrote his memo). The Commander-in-Chief on the East Indies Station was Rear-Admiral George L. Atkinson-Willes (seniority of 19 February 1901). At the time Rear-Admiral William des V. Hamilton (seniority of 21 January 1903) was wearing his flag in the Duncan class battleship Albemarle as Rear-Admiral in the Mediterranean Fleet (effectively third-in-command), so it is interesting to ponder if the Duncans would have been sent east with a flag officer. He was also due to be relieved at the end of the month by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Poore, Bart.