Thursday, September 20, 2012

When discretion is not the better part

Started a fascinating read -- Robert K. Massie's monumental work Castles of Steel, about World War I at sea as I bone up in advance of the First World War centennial coming up in less than two years.

SMS Goeben by Navis
Unlike World War II, which saw viscous worldwide naval fighting for almost its entire duration, most of the action in the Great War happened within the first couple of years and the very first few months, in particular. There were a number of dramatic episodes. While my main interest is in the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, another exciting story was the adventures of the German battlecruiser Goeben as it escaped British pursuit on its way to Turkey. There are a number of interesting what-if confrontations involved that would make interesting yet small-scale naval battles.

HMS Defence by Navis
Perhaps the most controversial episode of the entire affair was the decision by British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge to call off his planned interception of the Goeben by his squadron of four armored cruisers of the Defence class on the grounds that he had been ordered to avoid action against a superior force. Leaving aside the question of whether he interpreted the orders improperly, was the Goeben a  superior force to four armored cruisers?

Troubridge and his flag captain, Capt. Fawcett Wray of the HMS Defense, were convinced that the Goeben was superior. It was faster, more heavily armed and armored and out-ranged the British ships vastly.  On the other hand, there were four armored cruisers and it can be questioned whether the Goeben had enough ammunition to dispatch all four. Further, there's the reality that, like all isolated German surface raiders in both World Wars, the Goeben had the handicap of having to avoid any significant damage at all in any battle it fought, or otherwise it would be left helpless to any followup British effort.

While Troubridge was acquitted by the court martial that judged his effort, the judgement of history and his colleagues in the Royal Navy was not kind. As Massie notes, The First Sea Lord in 1939 praised the commander who risked his cruiser force to run down the pocket battleship Graf Spee with these words: "Even if all your ships had been sunk you would have doen the right thing .... Your action has reversed the finding of the Troubridge court martial and shows how wrong it was."

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite books. I was/am fascinated by the naval campaign in the Dardanelles/Gallipoli.