In 1911, when Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, he oversaw major revisions to the Admiralty’s basic strategic concept for European war, and in the war plans associated with this concept. These changes were necessitated by a shift in the probable enemy of a future war (Germany, not France) and, hence, in the strategic naval front (from the South to the East Coast, and from the English Channel to the North Sea).
The overriding purpose of British naval strategy was still to ensure full command of the seas, keeping the British Isles safe from invasion and preserving maritime communications with the Empire and expeditionary ground forces. The first line of defense remained the enemy’s ports. The concept of operations shifted from close to distant blockade, however, out of necessity (primarily changes in technology—torpedoes, naval mines, submarine, etc.) but it did not involve the abandonment of the fundamental principle of an aggressive naval strategy. By closing the exits from the North Sea into the Atlantic Ocean German commerce would be almost completely cut off from the world. The resulting financial pressure would fatally injure the German power to carry on a war. It was hoped that this pressure would compel the German fleet to come out and fight, not in defended waters close to home, but at a numerical disadvantage on the open ocean.
The greatest danger to this strategic concept, as Churchill saw it, was that of a surprise German attack on the Fleet and on vital assets ashore (such as armories). In the first volume of The World Crisis, Churchill’s study of the Great War, he explains the stakes:
If the Fleet or any vital part of it were caught unawares or unready and our naval preponderance destroyed, we had lost the war, and there was no limit to the evils which might have been inflicted upon us except the mercy of an all-powerful conqueror. We have seen in recent years how little completely victorious nations can be trusted to restrain their passions against a prostrate foe. Great Britain, deprived of its naval defence, could be speedily starved into utter submission to the will of the conqueror. Her Empire would be dismembered; her dominions, India and her immense African and island possessions would be shorn off or transferred to the victors. Ireland would be erected into a hostile well-armed republic on the flank of Great Britain; and the British people, reduced to a helpless condition, would be loaded with overwhelming indemnities…. The stakes were very high. If our naval defence were maintained we were safe and sure beyond the lot of any other European nation; if it failed, our doom was certain and final.
Through various studies and naval exercises, Churchill and his staff attempted to identify critical warning indicators, both strategic and tactical, of a surprise attack. Would there be a week’s notice, or three days, or 24 hours? What were the critical vulnerabilities? How could necessary naval training and maneuvers be conducted without giving the Germans opportunities to strike while ships were low on fuel or ammunition? What was the best way to safeguard key facilities, such as ports, which were open to the world during peacetime? Assuming the Fleet survived the outbreak of war, what was the maximum size of a German raid that might be landed on the British coast, and how many men must the regular Army retain at home against that contingency?
The disposition and operations of the Fleet and its infrastructure were modified according to these analyses. Churchill would check up on things by unexpectedly demanding of his staff, from time to time, “What happens if war with Germany begins today?”
From a distance of nearly a century—with the experience of Pearl Harbor long behind us—we might smile at such apparent threat inflation. After all, the Germans did not strike preemptively at Britain or the Royal Navy, nor is there any indication that they planned to do so. Yet, as Churchill reminds us, the first step in avoiding strategic or operational surprise is to consider seriously its possibility, which is a subset of considering seriously the possibility of war itself. That is something difficult to credit in times when we are assured of the obsolescence and futility of war, certainly among great powers. We are also inclined to assure ourselves, with memories of 9/11 fading, that anyone less than a great power would never dare try it against us. Certainly Iran would not.
In 1909, Germany and Britain exchanged diplomatic notes, stiff in tone but polite in language, surely not to be taken seriously—but the First Sea Lord, the senior naval officer, nevertheless thought it prudent to send out a warning to the Fleet. Churchill reflected on that occasion:
They sound so very cautious and correct, these deadly words. Soft, quiet voices purring, courteous, grave, exactly-measured phrases in large peaceful rooms. But with less warning cannons had opened fire and nations had been struck down by this same Germany. So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilisation has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.
In The World Crisis, excerpted below, Churchill discusses in some detail his thoughts on peacetime military planning against specific contingencies (in this case, surprise attack). He explains that this requires a certain discipline and imagination in order to overcome the easy and comfortable assumptions of peace, but without passing too far into the realm of speculation. Get the first, and first-order, things right, and the rest can follow according to experience.
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Churchill on Peacetime Contingency Planning (excerpted from The World Crisis, Volume I, pp. 160-174)
While the discussions of the invasion Committee were at their height during the spring and summer of 1913, I prepared a series of papers in support of the Admiralty view, but also designed to explore and illuminate the situations that might arise. They show the hopes and fears we felt before the event, what we thought the enemy might do against us, and the dangers we hoped to avoid ourselves. They show the kind of mental picture I was able to summon up in imagination of these tremendous episodes which were so soon to rush upon us. My intention also was to stimulate thought in the Admiralty War Staff, and to expose weak points in our arrangements. For this purpose I entered into an active discussion and correspondence with several of the ablest Admirals (notably Admiral Beatty, Admiral Lewis Bayly, and Sir Reginald Custance), seeking to have the whole matter argued out to the utmost limit possible. I caused war games to be played at the War College in which, aided by one or the other of my naval advisers, I took one side, usually the German, and forced certain situations. I also forecasted the political data necessary to a study of military and naval action on the outbreak of war.
Various papers which I prepared in 1913 were the result of this process of study and discussion. The first, entitled “Notes by the First Lord of the Admiralty,” deals with the problem of raid and invasion in general terms, and shows the conditions which would prevail in a war with Germany. The second propounds the issues to be faced by the War Staff. The third records my written discussion of the problem with the First Sea Lord, while the sittings of the Invasion Committee were proceeding. The fourth and fifth were entitled “The Time-Table of a Nightmare” and “A Bolt from the Grey”—imaginative exercises couched in a half serious vein, but designed to disturb complacency by suggesting weak points in our arrangements and perilous possibilities.
[The first three of these papers, in condensed form, were reprinted here in The World Crisis.]
These papers are sufficient to show that we did not ignore the dangers that lay before us or neglect the attempt to penetrate their mysteries. It is easy to underrate the difficulty of such work in days of peace.
In time of war there is great uncertainty as to what the enemy will do and what will happen next. But still, once you are at war the task is definite and all-dominating. Whatever may be your surmises about the enemy or the future, your own action is circumscribed within practical limits. There are only a certain number of alternatives open. Also, you live in a world of reality where theories are constantly being corrected and curbed by experiment. Resultant facts accumulate and govern to a very large extent the next decision.
But suppose the whole process of war is transported out of the region of reality into that of imagination. Suppose you have to assume to begin with that there will be a war at all; secondly, that your country will be in it when it comes; thirdly, that you will go in as a united nation and that the nation will be united and convinced in time, and that the necessary measures will be taken before it is too late;—then the processes of thought become speculative indeed. Every set of assumptions which it is necessary to make, draws new veils of varying density in front of the dark curtain of the future. The life of the thoughtful soldier or sailor in time of peace is made up of these experiences—intense effort, amid every conceivable distraction, to pick out across and among a swarm of confusing hypotheses what actually will happen on a given day and what actually must be done to meet it before that day is ended. Meanwhile all around people, greatly superior in authority and often in intelligence, regard him as a plotting knave, or at the best an overgrown child playing with toys, and dangerous toys at that.
Therefore the most we could do in the days before the war was to attempt to measure and forecast what would happen to England on the outbreak and in the first few weeks of a war with Germany. To look farther was beyond the power of man. To try to do so was to complicate the task beyond mental endurance. The paths of thought bifurcated too rapidly. Would there be a great sea battle or not? What would happen then? Who would win the great land battle? No one could tell. Obviously the first thing was to be ready; not to be taken unawares: to be concentrated; not to be caught divided: to have the strongest Fleet possible in the best station, under the best conditions in good time, and then if the battle came one could await its result with a steady heart. Everything, therefore, to guard against surprise; everything, therefore, to guard against division; everything, therefore, to increase the strength of the forces available for the supreme sea battle.
But suppose the enemy did not fight a battle at sea. And suppose the battle on land was indeterminate in its results. And suppose the war went on not for weeks or months, but for years. Well, then it would be far easier to judge those matters at the time, and far easier then, when everybody was alarmed and awake and active, to secure the taking of the necessary steps; and there would be time to take them. No stage would be so difficult or so dangerous as the first stage. The problems of the second year of war must be dealt with by the experience of the first year of war. The problems of the third year of war must be met by results observed and understood in the second, and so on.
I repulse, therefore, on behalf of the Boards of Admiralty over which I presided down to the end of May, 1915, all reproaches directed to what occurred in 1917 and 1918. I cannot be stultified by any lessons arising out of those years. It is vain to tell me that if the Germans had built in the three years before the war, the submarines they built in the three years after it had begun, Britain would have been undone; or that if England had had in August, 1914, the army which we possessed a year later, there would have been no war. Every set of circumstances involved every other set of circumstances. Would Germany in profound peace have been allowed by Great Britain to build an enormous fleet of submarines which could have no other object than the starvation and ruin of this island through the sinking of unarmed merchant ships? Would Germany have waited to attack France while England raised a powerful conscript army to go to her aid?
Every event must be judged in fair relation to the circumstances of the time and only in such relation.
In examining the questions with which this chapter has been concerned, I was accustomed to dwell upon the dangers and the darker side of things. I did this to some extent intentionally, in order to create anxiety which would lead to timely precautions. Every danger set forth we tried to meet. Many we met. More never matured, either because they were prevented by proper measures, or because the Germans were less enterprising than I thought it prudent to assume.