Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

As in previous wars, Britain intended to blockade its Continental enemies in order to prevent them from trading with the rest of the world. In 1908 Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided that the traditional close blockade was no longer viable because of the threat from torpedo armed vessels. He therefore ordered that the blockade ships should withdraw 170 miles at night.

In 1911 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, his successor, reinstated the plan for a close blockade. However, as well as being very risky, it required twice as many destroyers as the Royal Navy (RN) possessed, since one would be in port refuelling and one on the way to or from the port for each one on duty.

In mid-1912, the Admiralty considered replacing the close blockade with an observational one across the North Sea in the middle of 1912. This was rejected because it was still vulnerable to German attack and needed too many ships. Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, who was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1912, called this idea ‘plain stupid.’[1]

A policy of distant blockade was introduced in July 1914. The Channel Fleet would block access to the English Channel. A line of cruisers from the Shetlands to Norway would prevent German trade with the rest of the world. They would be safe from the enemy because the Grand Fleet, the RN’s strongest force, including most of its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers, would frequently patrol the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

A good performance by submarines in the 1913 fleet manoeuvres led to suggestions that the close blockade might be reinstated using submarines. Nicholas Lambert notes that ‘[s]ufficient evidence has survived…to contradict widespread assertions of myopia among British naval officers with regard to the submarine.’[2] Admiral Sir John Jellicoe wrote that submarines ‘can undoubtedly carry out a blockade of the enemy’s coast in the old sense of the word.’[3]

There were not enough submarines to adopt such a policy in 1914, but it was intended to increase submarine construction in later years. The Naval Estimates had risen from £31.3 million in 1907-8 to £48.7 million in 1913-14. It could be reduced by replacing a planned battleship with a number of submarines. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote in the first draft of The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, that the margin of 60 per cent over Germany could be maintained by regarding dreadnoughts ‘not as capital ships, but as units of power which could, if desirable, be expressed in any other form.’[4]

The British switch to a distant blockade ruined German plans to whittle down the RN by attacks on British ships carrying out a close blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office, asked Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Germany’s main naval force, in May 1914 ‘[w]hat will you do if they do not come [into the Heligoland Bight]’?[5] Neither appeared to have an answer to this question.

Lambert argues in a recent book, Planning Armageddon, that the Admiralty planned to conduct economic warfare against Germany in a huge scale.[6] Britain would use its effective monopolies in banking, communications and shipping to disrupt the global economy and paralyse Germany. The plan was not carried out because of fears about the impact on Britain and neutral countries, especially the USA.

In the Mediterranean Austria-Hungary and Italy, although both members of the Triple Alliance with Germany, each regarded the other as its principal naval rival. They were building against each other, but their alliance meant that the Admiralty had to allow for the possibility that they would combine against Britain and France.

After a period of neglect of its navy, France laid down its first dreadnoughts in 1910. A new naval programme was announced in 1912, with 16 dreadnoughts planned, although the need to prioritise the army during the war meant that only seven were completed, plus another that was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Britain and France had undertaken a series of naval conversations, but were not formally allied. Britain, which had to match the threat from Germany in the North Sea, reduced its Mediterranean fleet. France, which could not match Germany on its own, moved most of its fleet to the Mediterranean.

Churchill was wary that the Anglo-French naval conversations had restricted British freedom of choice. He argued that both parties would have made the same dispositions of their fleets even without the talks as they were the logical  measures to take:

‘the French…are not strong enough to face Germany alone, still less to maintain themselves in two theatres. They therefore rightly concentrate their Navy in the Mediterranean where it can be safe and superior and can assure their African communications. Neither is it true that we are relying on France to maintain our position in the Mediterranean.’[7]

The Cabinet decided that Britain would deploy a Mediterranean fleet of a one power standard excluding France in 1915 when enough ships would be available, meaning a fleet of six dreadnoughts and the two newest pre-dreadnoughts. In the interval, the Mediterranean fleet would be made up of enough battlecruisers and armoured cruisers to ensure that Anglo-French strength exceeded the combined Triple Alliance fleet, including the German Mediterranean squadron of a battlecruiser and a light cruiser.

Despite the absence of a formal alliance between Britain and France Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on 3 August, the day before Britain declared war, that the naval conversations gave Britain a moral obligation to France:

‘the Northern and Western Coasts of France are absolutely undefended…The French fleet is in the Mediterranean, and has for some years been concentrated there because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries.’[8]

RN ships in the rest of the world were mostly old, with the exception of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. Their wartime role would be to protect trade and hunt down the German cruisers that were stationed overseas.


[1] Quoted in H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 395.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 290.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 299.

[5] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 23.

[6] N. A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[7] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. v, p. 306

[8] Quoted in C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 544.



Filed under War History

2 responses to “Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

  1. I don’t know as much as I should about WWI, so I find this extremely interesting – as always with your posts!

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