Today I completed the Seapower books and started on Naval Warfare. Lots of books that take apart the reasons behind warfare as seen from a naval point of view. This includes the navy helping the army as well as maritime warfare in its own right.
As usual, as I work, I glance through the books in order to compose adequate and accurate abstracts and this subject proved to be quite fascinating. From early commentators in the mid-Victorian period to people writing in the last decade, opinions change, are amended then return to the overriding conclusion that warfare has been around as long as mankind has been able to hold a rock.
In fact, the general consensus appears to be that the only way to win at warfare is by having the biggest rock and the ability to throw it further than your enemy.
Something that kept coming up was the fact that warfare is political. I guess for these writers looking at their times, the politics were all about aggression and domination. (After 70 odd years of a peaceful Europe, we seem to be returning to it.) Most of the books I was cataloguing were concerned with the UK and the US, two countries obsessed with the notion of empire and control.
One book which I was particularly taken with contained chapters on famous battles, starting with Trafalgar and moving on to Jutland, both very important turning points in the history of naval warfare.
Of course, the chapter on Trafalgar spends a lot of time discussing the genius of Nelson and his wonderful ship, HMS Victory. His strategy at Trafalgar will forever be marked for a singularly incredible decision that saw the British navy rip the French and Spanish ships apart or send them running. It is an amazing victory by an equally amazing man.
But the story of Britain’s most famous ship doesn’t end there. Moving on to Jutland, the author starts by telling the story of how the Germans tried to bomb the Victory.
It was in 1940 and the Luftwaffe decided to drop a few tons of bombs on Portsmouth Dockyard. Whether they intended to hit the Victory, the symbol of British Maritime Supremacy, is unclear but one 500lb bomb came very close.
Since 1922, HMS Victory had sat in the dry dock where it remains to this day. A lot of talk then action surrounded her repair and eventual fate. There were plans for her to possibly float in the Thames opposite the Royal Naval Academy. There was also the plan to move her from the dry dock and have her floating at a permanent mooring.
However, any suggestion that she could be moved before extensive renovation was laughable given the condition she was in. She stayed in the dry dock and hasn’t moved since. (Actually that’s not entirely true. Due to various conditions and temperature fluctuations, she does move about 30cm a year.)
All of which was very good news for the Victory.
The 500lb bomb that landed on the dry dock merely punched a small hole in her hull. (I’m assuming it also severely damaged the dock itself but the writer doesn’t comment on what is, essentially, a big bit of concrete.) Had she been floating in water, the shock waves would have shaken her to pieces. And if the bomb had hit her full on, she would have exploded then, eventually, burned to the bottom of the dry dock, with nary a trace left.
Of course, as soon as the German pilots let the High Command know that they had dropped a bomb on HMS Victory, the newspapers in Berlin and Munich and Dusseldorf and all over Germany, were full of the fact that they had managed to completely destroy the famous ship.
The, dare I say ‘fake’, news was quickly rebuffed and corrected by the Times. People were dismayed, upset and worried that the Germans had managed to blow up such a big symbol of colonial greatness. It would have been like them destroying St Paul’s or Buckingham Palace or even Stonehenge. These were the British symbols that the common man (and woman) could hold high; symbols that proved the British were still alive and nothing the enemy could throw at them would change that.
And so, HMS Victory (which is still a commissioned British Navy vessel and therefore has a captain – presently Lieutenant Commander Brian Smith) sits in glory for about 350,000 visitors a year as a symbol of what made Britain once upon a time, rule the waves. (It also plays host to the SNR Victory Dinner once a year.)
What does this say about Naval Warfare? It says we like to surround ourselves with the trappings of ‘once upon a time’ in order to make ourselves feel like winners when we might not be quite so powerful anymore.
This, to my mind anyway, is far more important given the state of the world at the moment. With us giving up the strength and partnership we achieved by being part of the biggest trading and peace-driven bloc in the world, it feels like the symbols of the past are eventually all we will have.
Let’s hope that once Brexit has happened and we become the third world country that people seem to want us to be that we can still look at HMS Victory and dream of days gone by while the rest of the world (America aside) continues to advance.
That’s moved a long way from books on Naval Warfare, however, another strong theme in the books is how we never seem to learn from the past, no matter how many people die for it.
How true that is.