Posts Tagged ‘naval battles’

The Kaiser’s Toy

Posted in General, On This Day on May 31st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

May 31, 1916:  The Undefeated German Navy

 Consider the greatest naval battles in history (and if this is a first for you, welcome to the introductory course).  Some of these monumental clashes had a profound strategic effect. 

After Salamis in 480 B.C., with the Greek destruction of their fleet, the Persians were left with nothing but their Iranian charm for supplies.  The battle of Actium, in 31 B.C., determined whether the first Roman emperor would be a dissipated has-been or a reptilian youngster.  (Bet on the reptile.)  At Midway in 1942, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and the initiative; after that, their strategy was fighting to the death rather than winning.

But other great naval battles really had no practical strategic consequence other than proving which fleet had the bigger ballast.  Lepanto, fought off the coast of Greece in 1571, was just a duel of imperial egos.  The Turks had no plans to invade the western Mediterranean, and the Spanish had no plans to liberate the Eastern Mediterranean.  The naval battle only indicated that God–that day–was more Catholic than Moslem.  Sometimes the motive for battle seems to be masochism.  The French and Spanish had no need to challenge the British at Trafalgar.  Perhaps they wanted to see if Lord Nelson was really that good; he was. 

And the greatest naval battle of World War I–Jutland–was just the fulfillment of a boy’s longstanding fantasy.  Unfortunately, the boy became Kaiser Wilhelm II–and he never grew up.  He wanted a navy that could challenge Britannia’s rule of the sea.  There was no practical purpose for a large German fleet.  Germany had a limited coastline and its neighbors on the Baltic Sea were not maritime threats.  Denmark had been behaving itself since the 12th century.  Perhaps the lumbering, outdated Russian fleet could have attacked Hamburg but only if someone would tow it.  Nein, the only reason for a massive German navy was to gratify the Kaiser’s ego.

Wilhelm may have been a boisterous buffoon but he was too dangerous to ignore.  So Britain had to meet his challenge by constructing  more and larger battleships.  Indeed, meeting the demands of the British navy left shipbuilders short of supplies for other projects.  A firm in Belfast had to cut a few corners in assembling a luxury liner; but if that damn ship hadn’t hit the iceberg, no one would have been the wiser. 

Furthermore, Britain ended its longstanding policy of magnificent disdain of European politics and alliance.  In 1907, it formed a cordial entente with France and Russia.  So, Britain was ready for war.  It merely had to wait for Germany to do something irrevocably stupid, like invading Belgium in 1914.

The German strategy was to goosestep its way to Paris in six weeks.  As far as the German High Command was concerned, the Navy was the Kaiser’s toy.  Nearly two years later, the army was still on its way to Paris.  (It would get there in 1940.)  The British navy was in the North Sea, daring the Kaiserliche Marine to leave port.  On May 31, 1916, the German fleet finally tried to justify its existence.

Off the Danish peninsula of Jutland, the two fleets maneuvered and shot at each other.  At the end of the day, an accountant tallying the corpses and wrecks would have said that Germany won.  With a smaller fleet, it inflicted far more damage, casualties and ship losses on the British.  Yet, the German fleet then retreated to its home ports, never to sail again and leaving the British navy in uncontested controls of the seas.

Ironically, that Fleet would have won the war–if it had been used in 1914.  At the onset of the War, the fleet could have sailed into the North Sea and the English Channel.  Yes, it would have found itself cut off from supplies, outgunned and without access to a friendly port.  What is German for sitting duck?  But so long as the German Navy was still floating between France and Britain, the British would have been unable to send 120,000 men to Belgium and Northern France to stop the German invasion.  Without the added obstacle of the  British army (which the Von Schlieffen plan had failed to calculate) the Germans might well have made their six-week itinerary to Paris.   

So the Kaiser’s navy would have won the war–even if none of the sailors lived to celebrate it.