top of page

Naval Gazing, Part 9: Interwar Intrigues

By Tom Anderson

"German Battleships and Cruisers, Scapa", by William Lionel Wyllie

World War One was said to be ‘the war to end all wars’. The fact that we now have to append a number to it is testament to how successful, or otherwise, the attempts to ensure it was that proved to be.

The circumstances following the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918 are fairly well known, at least in broad strokes. Germany was finally defeated, but without Entente troops significantly crossing onto her soil; at the resulting peace negotiations, the Treaty of Versailles, a punishing peace was imposed upon Germany and the other Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire ultimately ceased to exist altogether). The combination of these two factors created the ‘Stab in the Back Myth’ (Dolchstoßlegende) that Germany had been undefeated on the battlefield, but had been betrayed on the home front by the revolutionaries who overthrew the Hohenzollern monarchy. When the Nazis came to power, specific groups (most obviously the Jews) would be targeted for their supposed connection with this alleged backstab.

The measures imposed at Versailles (and before) were dictated by what the Entente allies regarded as being the most important components of a war machine. Some of these decisions were influenced by experience during the war, but others were driven by persistent pre-war assumptions. As this article series focuses on naval history, we will not here consider the factors involving the German army and air force (the latter being banned altogether).

The fate of much of the German Navy was actually decided before Versailles itself. When Germany accepted the Armistice, instructions were sent by the Entente powers that the High Seas Fleet should be made ready to sail before November 18th, with the threat of German Heligoland being occupied if the instruction was not complied with. The Entente had already decided that the German U-boat fleet should be confiscated and further U-boat construction be banned, a sensible target considering that U-boat commerce raiding had brought Britain the closest to defeat of any factor in the war. The U-boats were sailed to the British base at Harwich and surrendered there.

The surrendered German fleet, photographed in Scapa Flow

The allied powers were unable to decide at the Armistice what should be done with the surface fleet, with the United States suggesting the ships be interned at ports in neutral Spain or Norway until a final decision could be made. (Both the Spanish and Norwegian governments refused this). Instead, Britain’s Admiral David Beatty instructed German Admiral Hugo Meurer to sail the High Seas Fleet to the British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands for surrender. The German fleet, 74 ships strong, was interned—leading to a bizarre situation of the crews being stuck on their ships for months as negotiations dragged on in Paris. France and Italy wanted to acquire a portion of the German ships for themselves, while Britain favoured sinking the ships, as the Franco-Italian scheme would upset the balance of fleet strength which Britain maintained.

On the day the Treaty of Versailles would be signed, Admiral Reuter ordered the fleet be scuttled (in violation of the Armistice) before the British could seize it. Valves were opened and Kaiser Wilhelm’s old dream, the mighty High Seas Fleet, began to sink as the vessels took on water.

Scuttling the SMS Bayern

The British managed to salvage some of the ships, but 52 of the 74 permanently sank. (The remains of the ships on the sea bed are now popular diving sites, and their steel is sometimes removed as it has pre-atomic age radiation levels, useful for manufacturing Geiger counters).

Almost two thousand Germans evacuated from their ships were taken and treated as prisoners of war by the British for breaking the Armistice terms; nine were shot dead and sixteen wounded in an attempt to make landfall in their lifeboats. Admiral Fremantle angrily confronted Reuter for his actions, but privately afterwards admitted feeling some sympathy for him. The self-destruction of the German Navy played a big role in the creation of the Dolchstoßlegende—the image of brave, undefeated men forced into an impossible position by the dishonourable orders of their superiors. (Notably, Admiral von Hipper had delegated command to Reuter in order to sidestep the shame of having to surrender himself).

Versailles limited the post-war Weimar Republic to a fleet of just 6 pre-dreadnought battleships (long obsolete), six light cruisers, twelve destroyers and twelve torpedo boats. As noted above, U-boats were banned altogether. There were specific restrictions on the tonnage of the ships that were allowed. The postwar German Navy, the Reichsmarine, would go on to inventively find loopholes in the treaty by building the three Deutschland-class ships Deutschland, Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee (the latter two named for the commanding officer at the Battle of Jutland and the most successful of Germany’s commerce raiders, defeated at the Battle of the Falklands). These were technically cruisers by the definitions of the Versailles Treaty, using clever innovations such as welding instead of riveting in order to save weight, but carried the armament of battleships. (Even with these innovations, the Deutschland-class ships actually slightly exceeded the weight limit). They eventually became referred to as ‘pocket battleships’ by the British as a result.

While Germany was obviously punished specifically for being on the losing side of the war, in the interwar period all the naval powers were faced with treaties limiting their naval tonnage for the first time. Much of the confusing, and seemingly contradictory, aftermath of the First World War can be attributed to political developments in the United States at this time. Woodrow Wilson had came to power in 1912 as the first Democratic President elected in 20 years, and only the second Democrat elected to the presidency since the realignment in the US Civil War of the 1860s. He had won 1912 based in part on a split Republican vote, and then won 1916 more narrowly based in large part on a promise to keep America out of the Great War. Having failed to fulfil that promise, as well as being unpopular for other reasons, Wilson saw both Houses of Congress fall to the more isolationist Republicans in the midterms of 1918—and he needed the Senate to ratify treaties.

This led to remarkably erratic US foreign policy, such as setting up the idealistic League of Nations and then refusing to join it. In the typical hyperpartisanship associated with American politics (which every generation of media commentators will always firmly insist is a new innovation of their corresponding generation of politicians) almost every decision broke down on partisan lines. Wilson had planned to start a new large American naval buildup, with the Republicans (with the support of a war-weary American public) opposed—Japan had already countered by beginning to pursue the Hachihaci Kantai (‘Eight-Eight Fleet’) strategy of building eight new battleships and eight new cruisers. The Imperial Japanese Navy had emerged from the war as newly powerful on the world stage. In the initial stages of the war Japanese forces had swept up Germany’s Far Eastern colonies, while later on (in one of those scenes that always feel more evocative of an alternate history novel than real life!) Japanese flotillas under Admiral Sato Kozo served in the Mediterranean against German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding (an inexperienced, scandal-prone dilettante who many have suggested represents the closest pre-existent prototype for the Trump Administration) was elected president in one of the biggest landslides in American history. Harding’s Democratic rival won the Southern states, but only because the Democrats had blatantly rigged the elections there since the withdrawal of federal troops after the end of Reconstruction (and would continued to do so until the 1960s).

Washington Naval Conference, November 1921

When Britain proposed calling an international conference to discuss the postwar situation in the Pacific, the Harding administration pre-empted this by instead calling the Washington Naval Conference in November 1921. Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes (who had run unsuccessfully for President against Wilson in 1916) declared ‘the way to disarm is to disarm’. This was a popular position not only with the isolationist-learning American public, but with war-weary people around the world unwilling to spend more of their taxes on military buildups.

After much heated negotiation, the treaty imposed a ratio of overall tonnage for the fleets of the major powers of 5 for Britain to 5 for the USA to 3 for Japan to 1.75 for Italy to 1.75 for France. The treaty also limited the specific tonnage of individual ship classes, such as 35,000 tons for battleships and battlecruisers (as well as limiting them to 16-inch guns). For the first time in many generations, capital ship construction did not continue escalating; to that extent, the treaty was a success.

Some of the impact of this was obvious. The world had changed, and Britain no longer dominated over all other nations; she could not maintain fleets in all theatres anymore. This was regarded as acceptable by some in Britain who (somewhat naively) regarded the US as being the country’s natural ally and having no major policy differences with British interests—although many in the Royal Navy were strongly opposed. Regardless, as with the French who fought unsuccessfully against their equal share with Italy, Britain was hamstrung by the need to cut its budget after the massive negative economic impact of war spending. America was clearly in the driving seat of the world for the first time, yet was run by an incapable president and a party that had little real interest in using the power that had fallen into their country’s lap. This would have serious consequences for the future. Most significantly, the Washington Naval Treaty ended the Anglo-Japanese Alliance; Japan regarded Britain’s actions as being a betrayal, and the Americans had unofficially demanded Britain break with Japan due to their own ambitions in the Pacific. Japan was suddenly on her own, and began developing her policy accordingly. Much of the naval warfare that shall be covered in the World War II article can therefore be traced back to these decisions.

The Washington Naval Treaty was maintained by subsequent treaties throughout the 1920s and 30s, but by the second half of the latter decade, Nazi Germany had rejected Versailles and begun building new battleships (the Bismarck and Tirpitz) while Japan and Italy renounced Washington and its successors. The dream of naval arms limitation, whether idealistic or self-interested, had ultimately failed. Britain had hoped to ban submarines altogether at Washington, as these had been shown to represent an effective way for a smaller naval power to take down the expensive dreadnoughts of a bigger one like Britain. Strangely enough, the smaller naval powers in question (such as the French) were not so happy about this proposal, and submarines went on to play a part in the Second World War as well.

One military ship class covered at Washington, which we have not yet mentioned, was the one which has been considered arguably the most important in the decades since the Second World War, and remains so to this day. This was, of course, the aircraft carrier. The First World War represented the first large-scale deployment of heavier-than-air aircraft in warfare, and it had not taken long for bright sparks to realise that this new weapon could also be applied to a naval dimension. Before the war itself, American aviation pioneer Eugene Burton Ely had successfully landed his Curtiss Pusher aeroplane on temporary platforms on the decks of the light cruiser USS Birmingham in 1910 and armoured cruiser USS Pennsylvania in 1911. The Royal Navy managed to launch a plane from the deck of a ship, the pre-dreadnought HMS Hibernia, in 1912. Japan was the first nation to use such a plane in warfare near Tsingtao in September 1914, with an (unsuccessful) attack launched from the deck of the modified transport Wakiyama oin the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth and the German gunboat Jaguar. In July 1918, Britain’s HMS Furious launched a raid of seven Sopwith Camel biplanes against the German airbase at Tondern (now Tønder in Denmark) and destroyed two zeppelins.

The French submarine "Surcouf"

These ships had all been conversions of existing cruisers or transports. Britain’s HMS Argus was arguably the first true ‘aircraft carrier’, although even she had been adapted from a part-built ocean liner. Like subsequent aircraft carriers, she was built around a ‘flight deck’, a flat surface that would allow planes to land and take off. This led to the nickname ‘flattop’ for aircraft carriers. The other naval powers soon followed suit, with Japan’s Hōshō (technically the first purpose-built aircraft carrier to be commissioned), America’s USS Langley, and France’s Béarn. France had already produced dedicated seaplane carriers before the war as a separate specialisation, and in 1929 launched the crazy (but impressive) concept of a seaplane-carrying submarine, the immense Surcouf (named for the maverick privateer Robert Surcouf during the Napoleonic Wars). This was another clever way of getting around the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. Italy, meanwhile, did not attempt to build a carrier until the outbreak of the Second World War, and that project was never completed. She would not join the carrier club until the construction of the Giuseppe Garibaldi in the 1980s.

It is interesting to note that the Washington Naval Conference already recognised aircraft carriers as a significant weapon and limited their construction (or conversion from other ships). However, few realised just how much aircraft carriers would go on to change warfare in the coming Second World War, with focus still remaining on battleships (and, to a lesser extent, submarines). Throughout the interwar period, ships completed the transition from coal to diesel as their primary propulsion. Another innovation that came in, derived from pre-war experiments by then-Captain Frederic Charles Freyer, was the implementation of analogue computers in warships to calculate firing solutions for their guns. Arguably the biggest change for naval warfare, just as it was for aerial warfare, was the development of radar (which happened simultaneously in multiple powers including Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom were convinced they were the only one who had it)—but that impact would have to wait for the outbreak of war.

There is one interwar power we have not yet considered. Russia had disappeared from the map in the aftermath of the First World War, as first the February and then the October Revolutions took place, followed by the Russian Civil War. The old Tsarist Empire was replaced by the world’s first large-scale communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Like its imperial predecessor, the USSR was a continental power first, and focused on the development of the Red Army. Much of the old tsarist fleet was sold to Weimar Germany to be scrapped, with only minor forces remaining in the Baltic and the Black Sea. It would not be until the 1930s that Stalin began planning an expansion of the Soviet Navy, using the dramatic increase in industrial power his government had ruthlessly built. Initially the plans focused on building submarines (a ship type which the USSR would continue to be particularly associated with even in the Cold War), a sensible decision for a country that, though a continental great power, would always be on the back foot navally. Indicative of the continuing assumptions of many naval theorists, Stalin’s later, grander plans focused on building 15 enormous Sovetsky Soyuz-class (“Soviet Union class”) battleships. Not exactly a radical departure for this brave new world from the chest-beating projects of the ‘imperialists’ they derided! None of these battleships were completed before Nazi Germany invaded in 1941, resulting in the plans being abandoned. In fact, the Soviets never built a single battleship themselves; three were retained from the pre-war tsarist fleet, one was obtained from Italy after WW2 and one was loaned from Britain during it.

As it turned out, though, not pouring resources into battleships at this time might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. For, as foreshadowed by incidents such as the 1937 Japanese attack on the US river gunboat USS Panay in China, the Second World War was coming…



bottom of page