Early adopters? Pah!

At work today I was cataloguing a shelf of books mainly discussing warfare and strategy. Naturally, most of them were concerned with the British navy though, obviously they also dealt with other navies in order to discuss the RN in context.

One of the books written quite recently was, I believe, quite incorrect in its basic premise. It first states that the British navy underwent the biggest changes since the Industrial Revolution during the 19th to early 20th century. That bit is true. It’s also true of most other navies.

However, while reading the introduction in order to compose an adequate abstract, it quickly became clear that the author considered the Admiralty of being an early adopting world leader in new technology. I have no idea where that idea came from.

Take the Warrior as an example.

Against a beautiful sky

The British navy could have adopted ironclad ships from as early as 1839 but it wasn’t until 1856 that they even considered them. They had plans for an ironclad corvette on the drawing board by 1857 but it wasn’t until 1860 that the Warrior was ready to become the world’s second ironclad naval vessel . This was, of course, because the French clad a wooden ship in iron and called it La Gloire in 1859.

The main problem regarding innovation in naval design as far as the navy was concerned can be laid squarely at the feet of King Charles II. He put forward the idea of having an established set of standards to which the naval dockyards had to adhere whenever they built new vessels.

The first set of standards was called the Establishment of 1719. These were not superseded until the Establishment of 1745. The whole establishment idea was scrapped before 1800 because it was simply unworkable and a barrier to innovation. What a surprise.

Then, even though the silly Establishment rules had been given the old heave ho, the general thinking was left watching from the corners of the Admiralty minds.

Two more glaring examples spring to mind.

At the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the British navy non-use of wireless technology almost scuppered the British fleet and, in fact, a documentary showed how the general dismissal of telegraph possibly cost a lot of ships and lives when Beatty opted to go with the old signal flag system. The flags were fine on a fine day but, it seemed, Beatty couldn’t actually see them when he needed to because of fog. This was at a critical juncture of the battle.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that wireless technology was in its infancy and the German codes were easily broken however, in such a case, when the technology was on the ship and a signal could easily have been sent, why depend on flags you can’t see? This says a lot about Beatty and his sticking to tradition, if you ask me.

Another example, sticking with the Germans rather than tradition, the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. A lot of people (rightly so in my opinion) saw this as a horrific example of unnecessarily killing civilians. The reason the Germans were able to do such a horrid yet decisive thing was because of their wholesale adoption of the submarine as an effective naval tool.

Not so the British. The submarine was not going to be a threat, the Admiralty claimed. It wasn’t honourable, old Admirals said over a glass of port. They were a fad that would end before it really started. How wrong can you be? And how short sighted.

Robert Fulton, (often said to have invented the submarine when he actually built the first practical one following on from Cornelis Drebbel’s original of 1620) had a working model as early as 1800 but it took about 100 years for them to become truly effective as weapons.

(Actually, Fulton’s early work was seen as a threat to the dominance of the British navy so the Admiralty bought his designs for £800 then decided not to bother after the victory at Trafalgar proved they still ‘ruled the waves.’)

The British navy had submarines in 1916 but they were not very good. They were big and clumsy and tended to collide with each other. The German U-Boats, on the other hand, were as deadly as sharks but with torpedoes rather than teeth. They were also very effective, mainly because the British navy refused to believe they’d be any good.

 So, I’m not convinced. Early adopters? The Admiralty? I don’t think so.

HMS Duke of Wellington (1852) engraving

The picture above isn’t meant to signify anything other than the fact that it was in the front of a book I worked on today and I rather like the engraving even though it’s incorrect. The ship would not have been running on both steam AND sail in real life, as depicted. One, of course, would hinder the other. Not to mention what the funnel exhaust would do to the sails.

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