Defense Media Network

Naval Weapons of World War One: Who Was Doing What, and Why

Interview with Norman Friedman, author of Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines, and ASW Weapons of All Nations – An Illustrated History

Norman Friedman’s book Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines, and ASW Weapons of All Nations – An Illustrated History, is not about gun barrels, torpedoes, and mines so much as how they were understood and employed.

Friedman, a Faircount Media Group/Defense Media Network senior writer, said that he became increasingly interested in the way in which naval weapons were understood before World War I and then used during that war.  “Nearly all accounts of weapons treat them as hardware without much reference to tactics or even to the rationale for development. Without that information, it is difficult to understand who was doing what, or why.”


Edward H. Lundquist:  In your book, you write that much of the book – and a lot of the research – was devoted to tactical thinking leading up to the war, and to how different weapons were viewed by different navies.  Were there any big surprises?

Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines, and ASW Weapons of All Nations – An Illustrated History; Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.; Seaforth Publishing, South Yorkshire, U.K. ISBN: 9781848321007; $85.00 406 pages; 300 B/W photos

Norman Friedman:  I think the biggest surprise for me was in the way different navies planned to use torpedoes, which had a terrific (and undeserved) press before the war – everyone thought one torpedo could sink a modern capital ship, whereas it would take many shell hits to smash her into uselessness (and then probably not to sink her). No one realized how unreliable existing torpedoes were, or how hard it was to hit from any appreciable distance. I had learned about British ideas of using mass torpedo attacks when writing about British destroyers.

Reading German tactical publications made it clear that, despite the British belief that they also liked the idea of mass attacks, the Germans didn’t – torpedoes were valuable and should not be wasted. For their part, the British thought about and planned mass attacks on the enemy’s battle line – and then failed to understand just how many torpedoes they needed. So they never had enough torpedo tubes in their destroyers. To my surprise, we also (perhaps but not necessarily independently) liked massed attacks, but at least we understood what was needed. I knew, but had forgotten, that we imagined that our destroyers could fire all of their torpedoes, from tubes on both sides, using the torpedoes’ gyros. That gave the needed numbers. Another surprise was how little anyone practiced complicated tactics prewar, assuming that everything would work perfectly ‘on the day.’ Again, I had seen hints before, but everything this time confirmed them.

I also found German tactical documents remarkably primitive. What happened at Jutland, I now realize, was that the German commander, von Scheer, discovered to his surprise that he had no idea whatever of what was happening – he maintained no plot, and the situation was far too complicated for anything less. In that sense he was profoundly defeated, and the only important conclusion he drew was that he never wanted to fight the whole British fleet again. That he even encountered the British fleet was due to the failure of his scouting plan, a failure I did not completely understand until I read the German war tactical handbook.


What are some examples of how tactics changed based on wartime experience?

I think the British learned the most. They spent the war seeking ways of overcoming the German turn-away at Jutland, and also of dealing with the German fleet even if it never went to sea again. You also find the British completely re-thinking their fire control techniques to deal with the German tactic of maneuvering to ruin fire control solutions.

We learned mostly technical things; the key fact about us was that when the U.S. Navy encountered the British as allies, we were shocked by how bad we were. It was like losing a war without the pain of defeat.


German U-boat, heavy seas

A German U-boat in rough seas. The effectiveness of submarines came as a surprise to World War I combatants, especially the British. National Archives photo

You write that World War I was a war of surprises.  Can you give some examples of the “surprises,” and developments that led up to new weapons?

Obviously the biggest surprise was that submarines were so effective. Before the war the British certainly thought that submarines might endanger their fleet, and they tried to create ASW weapons, but the danger was far more widespread, and the prewar weapons were utter failures.

A second surprise, which ultimately made ASW successful, was that submarines were fairly fragile, so even a small surface ship could be an effective submarine-killer. That discovery made convoying possible. Convoying had been resisted because it had been assumed that it would take a significant warship, such as a destroyer, to be an escort, and diverting those ships in large numbers would have immobilized the British fleet and thus opened the British to the threat of German surface attacks – a threat not to be laughed off.


What about mines?

Mass mine warfare was another surprise. It greatly limited the freedom of action of fleets, particularly the British fleet, in the North Sea; mining also killed the campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915. I don’t think anyone imagined the sheer number of minesweepers which would be needed, or, for that matter, the ingenuity which would go into advanced mines. I had been only dimly aware that the British deployed magnetic mines in 1918 and nearly deployed acoustic ones.

HMS Irresistible mined 18 March 1915

The British battleship HMS Irresistible abandoned and sinking, March 18, 1915, after striking a floating mine during the Battle of Gallipoli. Library of Congress photo

Another interesting example was the North Sea Barrage, a mass of mainly U.S. mines laid across much of the North Sea to limit the freedom of movement of U-boats. It was probably the supreme contribution U.S. industry made to victory in World War I, and we were very proud of it at the time.

Of course one should include the beginnings of naval air power. I don’t do much with air weapons, because they were much less effective at sea in World War I than were equivalent weapons ashore. I do discuss the beginnings of air-launched torpedoes, both British and German.  Had the war continued a bit longer, the British would have launched a mass air torpedo strike against the German fleet in harbor, and I would be writing a lot more about such weapons.


You stated that a lot of what was written after World War I amounted to excuses after the fact, “which obscure the reality.”  What kind of excuses?  What reality?

Most of the naval story of World War I is about the big ships fighting it out in the North Sea, with Jutland by far the biggest story. The British did rather well at Jutland; the Germans learned not to come out again. But at the time it did not feel much like a victory, because the British lost more ships, including three battlecruisers which blew up spectacularly.

HMS Queen Mary blows up-Jutland

HMS Queen Mary blows up during the Battle of Jutland.

Our picture of what happened and, importantly, of why, comes from the postwar writing of various British authors, including Winston Churchill and the various commanders. Each seems to have been interested mainly in showing that he, or his hero (whoever that may have been) was not at fault in the Jutland disaster. It was never, ever, that one of them was the hero who won the battle, even though it looks in retrospect like a real victory.

To make it even more interesting, when you go into British archives to find out how their practices – including tactics – evolved in the five or so years before World War I, you don’t find much. I had to dig rather hard to get what I did, and access to U.S. archives helped a lot.


So what are the excuses?

The biggest is that the pre-1914 Royal Navy was obsessed with new technology to the point of neglecting tactics. The trouble is that they did a great deal of tactical experimentation – you just have to look hard to find it. Then there is the claim that Jellicoe was too obsessed with gunnery at the expense of torpedoes – except that before the war he was instrumental in torpedo development, and he kept pushing it rather hard in wartime. That turns up when you look closely at cruiser and destroyer documents. The documents, which have been buried and forgotten, include the business of mass torpedo tactics – which Jellicoe attributed to the Germans.

Then there is the famous business of stupidly light armor on battlecruisers – but it turns out that they exploded because of remarkably bad magazine practices, which were probably adopted because of changes in tactics. After the battle, the ships were given more deck armor – I think as a way of saving morale, not as a solution to a non-technical problem.

I don’t think that anyone wanted to say the truth. The Royal Navy was better prepared than any other in 1914, but it was still lacking important pieces of its puzzle. Tactics had been devised with great care, but they generally had not been tested to make sure that nothing was missing – and command and control were not at all good. Much of the postwar critique of limited initiative and too little aggressiveness ignored the realities of a mass fleet tightly packed together (like an army), in which too much initiative would have been disastrous.

SMS Seydlitz after Jutland

The German battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz in harbor after the Battle of Jutland, June 6, 1916. Imperial War Museum photo

The Royal Navy could have done better, but it did rather well. There was no real need for scapegoats – but the navy tore itself up finding them. The only upside was that the interwar Royal Navy emphasized what it thought the prewar navy lacked – the initiative and aggressiveness – which proved invaluable in the next war. Ironically, the fleet which fought that war was spread out enough that exactly these qualities worked wonderfully – which means that a key to understanding is to see the difference between large numbers packed together in the Grand Fleet and the thinned-out fleets which followed.

The Germans of course also needed excuses. Their navy had eaten far too many resources but it had achieved almost nothing. How come? The Germans worked hard to claim that Jutland had been a great victory for them, because that helped justify their expensive surface fleet.  Working hard included the claim that it was their superior shells which had worked wonders at Jutland, and minimizing the reason they had to run for it afterwards.  I have not been in German archives, but I also have not seen much depth in German accounts, e.g. much account of what the German navy thought it was doing prewar in the way of tactics. I suspect the answer would be uninspiring.

There is of course much more, such as the way in which navies interpreted the lessons of the only modern naval war, the Russo-Japanese fight in 1904-5. The Russians in particular drew rather different conclusions from those of the Western navies, and in 1914 they had a rather different idea of where they were going.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...