Military history


Problems of Air and Sea, 1935–1939

A Technical Interlude, — German Power to Blackmail — Approaches to Mr. Baldwin and the Prime Minister — The Earth versus the Air — Mr. Baldwin’s Invitation — The Air Defence Research Committee — Some General Principles — Progress of Our Work — The Development of Radar — Professor Watson-Watt and Radio Echoes — The Tizard Report — The Chain of Coastal Stations — Air-Marshal Dowding’s Network of Telephonic Communications — The “Graf Zeppelin” Flies up Our East Coast: Spring of 1939 — I.F.F. — A Visit to Martlesham, 1939 — My Admiralty Contacts — The Fleet Air Arm — The Question of Building New Battleships — Calibre of Guns — Weight of Broadsides — Number of Turrets — My Letter to Sir Samuel Hoare of August 1, 1936 — The Admiralty Case — Quadruple Turrets — An Unfortunate Sequel — A Visit to Port Portland: the “Asdics.”

TECHNICAL DECISIONS of high consequence affecting our future safety now require to be mentioned, and it will be convenient in this chapter to cover the whole four years which lay between us and the outbreak of war.

After the loss of air parity, we were liable to be blackmailed by Hitler. If we had taken steps betimes to create an air force half as strong again, or twice as strong, as any that Germany could produce in breach of the Treaty, we should have kept control of the future. But even air parity, which no one could say was aggressive, would have given us a solid measure of defensive confidence in these critical years, and a broad basis from which to conduct our diplomacy or expand our air force. But we had lost air parity. And such attempts as were made to recover it were vain. We had entered a period when the weapon which had played a considerable part in the previous war had become obsessive in men’s minds, and also a prime military factor. Ministers had to imagine the most frightful scenes of ruin and slaughter in London if we quarrelled with the German Dictator. Although these considerations were not special to Great Britain, they affected our policy, and by consequence all the world.

During the summer of 1934, Professor Lindemann wrote to The Times newspaper, pointing out the possibility of decisive scientific results being obtained in air defence research. In August, we tried to bring the subject to the attention, not merely of the officials at the Air Ministry who were already on the move, but of their masters in the Government. In September, we journeyed from Cannes to Aix-les-Bains and had an agreeable conversation with Mr. Baldwin, who appeared deeply interested. Our request was for an inquiry on a high level. When we came back to London, departmental difficulties arose, and the matter hung in suspense. Early in 1935, an Air Ministry Committee composed of scientists was set up and instructed to explore the future. We remembered that it was upon the advice of the Air Ministry that Mr. Baldwin had made the speech which produced so great an impression in 1933 when he said that there was really no defence. “The bomber will always get through.” We had, therefore, no confidence in any Air Ministry departmental committee, and thought the subject should be transferred from the Air Ministry to the Committee of Imperial Defence, where the heads of the Government, the most powerful politicians in the country, would be able to supervise and superintend its actions and also to make sure that the necessary funds were not denied. At this stage we were joined by Sir Austen Chamberlain, and we continued at intervals to address Ministers on the subject.

In February, we were received by Mr. MacDonald personally, and we laid our case before him. No difference of principle at all existed between us. The Prime Minister was most sympathetic when I pointed out the peace aspect of the argument. Nothing, I said, could lessen the terrors and anxieties which overclouded the world so much as the removal of the idea of surprise attacks upon the civil populations. Mr. MacDonald seemed at this time greatly troubled with his eyesight. He gazed blankly out of the windows onto Palace Yard, and assured us he was hardening his heart to overcome departmental resistance. The Air Ministry, for their part, resented the idea of any outside or superior body interfering in their special affairs, and for a while nothing happened.

I therefore raised the matter in the House on June 7, 1935:

The point [I said] is limited, and largely scientific in its character. It is concerned with the methods which can be invented or adopted or discovered to enable the earth to control the air, to enable defence from the ground to exercise control – indeed domination – upon airplanes high above its surface…. My experience is that in these matters, when the need is fully explained by military and political authorities, Science is always able to provide something. We were told that it was impossible to grapple with submarines, but methods were found which enabled us to strangle the submarines below the surface of the water, a problem not necessarily harder than that of clawing down marauding airplanes. Many things were adopted in the war which we were told were technically impossible, but patience, perseverance, and, above all, the spur of necessity under war conditions, made men’s brains act with greater vigour, and Science responded to the demands….

It is only in the twentieth century that this hateful conception of inducing nations to surrender by terrorising the helpless civil population by massacring the women and children has gained acceptance and countenance among men. This is not the cause of any one nation. Every country would feel safer if once it were found that the bombing airplane was at the mercy of appliances directed from the earth, and the haunting fears and suspicions which are leading nations nearer and nearer to another catastrophe would be abated…. We have not only to fear attacks upon our civil population in our great cities, in respect of which we are more vulnerable than any other country in the world, but also attacks upon the dockyards and other technical establishments without which our Fleet, still an essential factor in our defence, might be paralysed or even destroyed. Therefore, it is not only for the sake of a world effort to eliminate one of the worst causes of suspicion and of war, but as a means of restoring to us here in Great Britain the old security of our island, that this matter should receive and command the most vigorous thought of the greatest men in our country and our Government, and should be pressed forward by every resource that the science of Britain can apply and the wealth of the country can liberate.

On the very next day, the Ministerial changes recorded in the previous chapter took place and Mr. Baldwin became Prime Minister. Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Swinton as he soon afterwards became, succeeded Lord Londonderry as Air Minister. One afternoon a month later, I was in the smoking-room of the House of Commons when Mr. Baldwin came in. He sat down next to me and said at once: “I have a proposal to make to you. Philip is very anxious that you should join the newly formed Committee of Imperial Defence on Air Defence Research, and I hope you will.” I said I was a critic of our air preparations and must reserve my freedom of action. He said: “That is quite understood. Of course you will be perfectly free except upon the secret matters you learn only at the Committee.”

I made it a condition that Professor Lindemann should at least be a member of the Technical Sub-Committee, because I depended upon his aid. A few days later, the Prime Minister wrote:

July, 1935.

I am glad you have seen Hankey, and I take your letter as an expression of your willingness to serve on that Committee.

I am glad, and I think you may be of real help in a most important investigation.

Of course, you are free as air [the correct expression in this case!] to debate the general issues of policy, programmes, and all else connected with the air services.

My invitation was not intended as a muzzle, but as a gesture of friendliness to an old colleague.

Accordingly, for the next four years I attended these meetings and thus obtained a full view of this vital sphere of our air defence, and built up my ideas upon it year by year in close and constant discussion with Lindemann. I immediately prepared a memorandum for the Committee which embodied the thought and knowledge I had already gathered, without official information, in my talks and studies with Lindemann and from my own military conceptions. This paper is of interest because of the light which it throws on the position in July, 1935. No one at that time had considered the use of radio beams for guiding bombers. The difficulties of training large numbers of individual pilots were obvious, and it was generally held that at night large fleets of aircraft would be led by a few master-bombers. Great advances into new fields were made in the four years which were to pass before the life of the nation was to be at stake; and meanwhile the adoption of bombing guided by radio beams caused profound tactical changes. Hence much that was written then was superseded, but a good deal was tried by me when I had power – not all with success.

23 July, 1935.

The following notes are submitted with much diffidence, and in haste on account of our early meeting, in the hopes that they may be a contribution to our combined thought.

General tactical conceptions and what is technically feasible act and react upon one another. Thus, the scientist should be told what facilities the air force would like to have, and airplane design be made to fit into and implement a definite scheme of warfare.

At this stage we must assume a reasonable war hypothesis, namely, that Great Britain, France, and Belgium are allies attacked by Germany.

After the outbreak of such a war, the dominating event will be the mobilisation of the great Continental armies. This will take at least a fortnight, diversified and hampered by mechanised and motorised inroads. The French and German General Staffs’ minds will be riveted upon the assembly and deployment of the armies. Neither could afford to be markedly behindhand at the first main shock. It may be hoped that Germany will not be ready for a war, in which the Army and Navy are to play an important part, for two or three years. Their Navy is at the moment exiguous; they have not yet obtained the command of the Baltic; and it would appear that their heavy artillery is still inadequate. To build a navy and to produce heavy artillery and train the men will take a time measured in years rather than in months.

A large part of German munitions production is concentrated in the Ruhr, which is easily accessible to enemy bombing. She must realise that she would be cut off from foreign supplies of many essential war materials (copper, tungsten, cobalt, vanadium, petrol, rubber, wool, etc.), and even her iron supply will be reduced unless she dominates the Baltic, so that she is scarcely yet in a position to undertake a war of long duration. Great efforts are of course being made to overcome these handicaps, such as the removal of certain factories from the frontier to Central Germany, the synthetic production of substances such as petrol and rubber, and the accumulation of large stocks. But it seems unlikely that Germany will be in a position before 1937 or 1938 to begin with any hope of success a war of the three services which might last for years, and in which she would have scarcely any allies.

It would appear in such a war the first task of the Anglo-French air force should be the breaking-down of enemy communications, their railways, motor roads, Rhine bridges, viaducts, etc., and the maximum disturbance of their assembly zones and munition-dumps. Next in priority come the most accessible factories for their war industry in all its forms. It seems fairly certain that if our efforts from zero hour were concentrated on these vital targets, we should impose a similar policy on the enemy. Otherwise, the French would have an unobstructed mobilisation, and command the initiative in the great land battle. Thus, any German aircraft used to commit acts of terror upon the British and French civil populations will be grudged and sparingly diverted.

Nevertheless, we must expect that even in a three-Service war, attempts will be made to burn down London, or other great cities within easy reach, in order to test the resisting will-power of the Government and people under these terrible ordeals. Secondly, the port of London, and the dockyards upon which the life of the Fleet depends, are also military targets of the highest possible consequence.

There is, however, always the ugly possibility that those in authority in Germany may believe that it would be possible to beat a nation to its knees in a very few months, or even weeks, by violent aerial mass attack. The conception of psychological shock tactics has a great attraction for the German mind. Whether they are right or wrong is beside the point. If the German Government believes that it can force a country to sue for peace by destroying its great cities and slaughtering the civilian population from the air before the Allied armies have mobilised and advanced materially, this might well lead it to commence hostilities with the air arm alone. It need scarcely be added that England, if she could be separated from France, would be a particularly apt victim for this form of aggression. For her main form of counter-attack apart from aerial reprisals, namely, a naval blockade, only makes itself felt after a considerable time.

If the aerial bombardment of our cities can be restricted or prevented, the chance (which may in any case be illusory) that our morale could be broken by “frightfulness” will vanish, and the decision will remain in the long run with the armies and navies. The more our defences are respected, the greater will be the deterrent upon a purely air war.

* * * * *

I had two ideas to contribute, some explanation of which will be found in the Appendix. It must be remembered that in 1935 we had still more than four years to run before any radio-detection method came into play.

* * * * *

The Committee worked in secret, and no statement was ever made of my association with the Government, whom I continued to criticise and attack with increasing severity in other parts of the field. It is often possible in England for experienced politicians to reconcile functions of this kind in the same way as the sharpest political differences are sometimes found not incompatible with personal friendships. Scientists are, however, a far more jealous society. In 1937, a considerable difference on the Technical Sub-Committee grew between them and Professor Lindemann. His colleagues resented the fact that he was in constant touch with me, and that I pressed his points on the main Committee, to which they considered Sir Henry Tizard should alone explain their collective view. Lindemann was, therefore, asked to retire. He was perfectly right in arming me with the facts on which to argue; indeed, this was the basis on which we had both joined in the work. Nevertheless, in the public interest, in spite of his departure, I continued with his full agreement to remain a member; and in 1938, as will presently be described, I was able to procure his reinstatement.

* * * * *

The possibility of using radio waves scattered back from aircraft and other metal objects seems to have occurred to a very large number of people in England, America, Germany, and France in the nineteen-thirties. We talked of them as R.D.F. (Radio Direction-Finding) or later as radar. The practical aim was to discern the approach of hostile aircraft, not by human senses, by eye or ear, but by the echo which they sent back from radio waves. About seventy miles up there is a reflecting canopy (ionosphere), the existence of which prevents ordinary wireless waves from wandering off into space, and thus makes long-range wireless communication possible. The technique of sending up very short pulses and observing their echo had been actively developed for some years by our scientists, and notably by Professor Appleton.

In February, 1935, a Government research scientist, Professor Watson-Watt, had first explained to the Technical Sub-Committee that the detection of aircraft by radio echoes might be feasible and had proposed that it should be tested. The Committee was impressed. It was assumed that it would take five years to detect aircraft up to a range of fifty miles. On July 25, 1935, at the fourth meeting of the Air Defence Research Committee, and the first which I attended, Tizard made his report upon radio-location. The preliminary experiments were held to justify further executive action. The service departments were invited to formulate plans. A special organisation was set up, and a chain of stations established in the Dover-Orfordness area for experimental purposes. The possibility of radio-location of ships was also to be explored.

By March, 1936, stations were being erected and equipped along the south coast, and it was hoped to carry out experimental exercises in the autumn. During the summer there were considerable delays in construction, and the problem of hostile jamming appeared. In July, 1937, plans were brought forward by the Air Ministry, and approved by the Air Defence Research Committee, to create a chain of twenty stations from the Isle of Wight to the Tees by the end of 1939 at the cost of over a million pounds. Experiments were now tried for finding hostile aircraft after they had come inland. By the end of the year we could track them up to a distance of thirty-five miles at ten thousand feet. Progress was also being made about ships. It had been proved possible to fix vessels from the air at a range of nine miles. Two ships of the Home Fleet were already equipped with apparatus for aircraft detection, and experiments were taking place for range-finding on aircraft, for fire control of anti-aircraft (A.A.) guns, and for the direction of searchlights. Work proceeded. By December, 1938, fourteen of the twenty new stations planned were operating with temporary equipment. Location of ships from the air was now possible at thirty miles.

By 1939, the Air Ministry, using comparatively long-wave radio (ten metres), had constructed the so-called coastal chain, which enabled us to detect aircraft approaching over the sea at distances up to about sixty miles. An elaborate network of telephonic communication had been installed under Air-Marshal Dowding, of Fighter Command, linking all these stations with a central command station at Uxbridge, where the movements of all aircraft observed could be plotted on large maps and thus the control in action of all our own air forces maintained. Apparatus called I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) had also been devised which enabled our coastal chain radar stations to distinguish British aircraft which carried it from enemy aircraft. It was found that these long-wave stations did not detect aircraft approaching at low heights over the sea, and as a counter to this danger a supplementary set of stations called C.H.L. (Chain Stations Home Service Low Cover) was constructed, using much shorter waves (one and a half metres), but only effective over a shorter range.

To follow enemy aircraft once they had come inland, we had meanwhile to rely upon the Royal Observer Corps, which only operated by ear and eye, but which, when linked up with all the telephone exchanges, proved of high value, and in the early part of the Battle of Britain was our main foundation. It was not enough to detect approaching enemy aircraft over the sea, though that gave at least fifteen to twenty minutes’ warning. We must seek to guide our own aircraft towards the attackers and intercept them over the land. For this purpose a number of stations with what were called G.C.I. (Ground Control of Interception) were being erected. But all this was still embryonic at the outbreak of war.

* * * * *

The Germans were also busy, and in the spring of 1939, the Graf Zeppelin flew up the east coast of Britain. General Martini, Director-General of Signals in the Luftwaffe, had arranged that she carried special listening equipment to discover the existence of British radar transmissions, if any. The attempt failed, but had her listening equipment been working properly, the Graf Zeppelin ought certainly to have been able to carry back to Germany the information that we had radar, for our radar stations were not only operating at the time, but also detected her movements and divined her intention. The Germans would not have been surprised to hear our radar pulses, for they had developed a technically efficient radar system which was in some respects ahead of our own. What would have surprised them, however, was the extent to which we had turned our discoveries to practical effect, and woven all into our general air defence system. In this we led the world, and it was operational efficiency rather than novelty of equipment that was the British achievement.

The final meeting of the Air Defence Research Committee took place on July 11, 1939. Twenty radar stations were at that time in existence between Portsmouth and Scapa Flow, able to detect aircraft flying above ten thousand feet, with ranges varying from fifty to one hundred and twenty miles. A satisfactory anti-jamming device and a simplified method of I.F.F. were now actually in production. Flight trials were taking place with experimental sets in aircraft to try to “home” on enemy machines. The experimental sets for the location of ships from the air had proved too bulky for air-service purposes, and were passed to the Admiralty for possible use by ships.

* * * * *

I add a final note. In June, 1939, Sir Henry Tizard, at the desire of the Secretary of State, conducted me in a rather disreputable airplane to see the establishments which had been developed on the east coast. We flew around all day. I sent my impressions to the Air Minister, and I print them here because they give a glimpse of where we were in this radar field on the eve of the task.

Mr. Churchill to Sir Kingsley Wood.

… I found my visit to Martlesham and Bawdsey under Tizard’s guidance profoundly interesting, and also encouraging. It may be useful if I put down a few points which rest in my mind:

These vital R.D.F. (radio direction-finding) stations require immediate protection. We thought at first of erecting dummy duplicates and triplicates of them at little expense; but on reflection it seems to me that here is a case for using the smoke-cloud….

A weak point in this wonderful development is, of course, that when the raid crosses the coast, it leaves the R.D.F., and we become dependent upon the Observer Corps. This would seem transition from the middle of the twentieth century to the early stone age. Although I hear that good results are obtained from the Observer Corps, we must regard following the raider inland by some application of R.D.F. as most urgently needed. It will be some time before the R.D.F. stations can look back inland, and then only upon a crowded and confused air theatre….

The progress in R.D.F., especially applied to range-finding, must surely be of high consequence to the Navy. It would give power to engage an enemy irrespective of visibility. How different would have been the fate of the German battle cruisers when they attacked Scarborough and Hartlepool in 1914, if we could have pierced the mist! I cannot conceive why the Admiralty are not now hot upon this trail. Tizard also pointed out the enormous value to destroyers and submarines of directing torpedoes accurately, irrespective of visibility by night or day. I should have thought this was one of the biggest things that had happened for a long time, and all for our benefit.

The method of discrimination between friend and foe is also of the highest consequence to the Navy, and should entirely supersede recognition signals with all their peril. I presume the Admiralty knows all about it.

Finally, let me congratulate you upon the progress that has been made. We are on the threshold of immense securities for our island. Unfortunately, we want to go farther than the threshold, and time is short.

I shall in a later volume explain the way in which, by these and other processes, the German attack on Great Britain was to a large extent parried in the autumn and winter of 1940. There is no doubt that the work of the Air Ministry and the Air Defence Research Committee, both under Lord Swinton and his successor, played the decisive part in procuring this precious reinforcement to our fighter aircraft. When in 1940, the chief responsibility fell upon me and our national survival depended upon victory in the air, I had the advantage of a layman’s insight into the problems of air warfare resulting from four long years of study and thought based upon the fullest official and technical information. Although I have never tried to be learned in technical matters, this mental field was well lit for me. I knew the various pieces and the moves on the board, and could understand anything I was told about the game.

* * * * *

My contacts with the Admiralty during these years were also constant and intimate. In the summer of 1936, Sir Samuel Hoare became First Lord, and he authorised his officers to discuss Admiralty matters freely with me; and as I took a keen interest in the Navy, I availed myself fully of these opportunities. I had known the First Sea Lord, Admiral Chatfield, from the Beatty days of 1914, and my correspondence with him on naval problems began in 1936. I also had a long-standing acquaintance with Admiral Henderson, the Controller of the Navy and Third Sea Lord, who deals with all questions of construction and design. He was one of our finest gunnery experts in 1912, and as I used when First Lord often to go out and see the initial firings of battleships before their gun-mountings were accepted from the contractors, I was able to form a very high opinion of his work. Both these officers at the summit of their careers treated me with the utmost confidence, and although I differed from them and criticised severely much that was done or not done, no complaint or personal reproaches ever disturbed our association.

The question of whether the Fleet air arm should be under the Admiralty or the Air Ministry was hotly disputed between the two departments and services. I took the Navy view, and my advocacy of it in Parliament drew a cordial letter of thanks from the First Sea Lord, in which he entered upon the whole question of naval policy. Sir Thomas Inskip came down to see me at Chartwell, and asked for my advice on this nicely balanced issue. I drew up for him a memorandum which, as it was eventually adopted almost word for word by His Majesty’s Government, may be printed in the Appendix.

* * * * *

When at last it was decided to begin building battleships again, the question of their design caused me great concern, Up to this moment practically all the capital ships of the Royal Navy had been built or designed during my administration of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915. Only the Nelson and the Rodney were created after the First World War. I have in The World Crisis described all the process of rebuilding the Navy and the designing of the Queen Elizabeth class of fast battleships in my first tenure of the Admiralty, when I had at my disposal so much of the genius and inspiration of Lord Fisher. To this I was always able to apply my own thought gathered from many other naval expert sources, and I still held strong opinions.

As soon as I heard that a battleship programme had been agreed to by the Cabinet, I was at once sure that our new ships should continue to mount the sixteen-inch gun, and that this could be achieved within thirty-five thousand tons displacement – the treaty limit, which we alone rigidly respected – by three triple sixteen-inch-gun turrets. I had several talks and some correspondence with Sir Samuel Hoare, and as I was not convinced by the arguments I heard, I began to ask questions in the House about the relative weight of broadsides from fourteen-inch- and sixteen-inch-gunned ships. For my private information the following figures were given:

14-inch 9 gun broadside 6.38 tons

16-inch 9 gun broadside 9.55 tons

The figure for the sixteen-inch gun is based, not on the existing sixteen-inch gun of H.M.S. Nelson, but on a hypothetical sixteen-inch gun of the type which the Americans have in mind for their new capital ships.

I was deeply impressed by the superior weight of the sixteen-inch broadside. I therefore wrote to Sir Samuel Hoare:

Mr. Churchill to Sir Samuel Hoare.


It is very civil of you to attach any importance to my opinion, and prima facie there is a case. I cannot answer the argument about the long delay involved. Once again we alone are injured by treaties. I cannot doubt that a far stronger ship could be built with three triple sixteen-inch-gun turrets in a 35,000-ton hull, than any combination of fourteen-inch. Not only would she be a better ship, but she would be rated a better ship and a more powerful token of naval power by everyone, including those who serve in her. Remember, the Germans get far better results out of their guns per calibre than we do. They throw a heavier shell farther and more accurately. The answer is a big punch. Not only is there an enormous increase in the weight of broadside, but in addition the explosive charge of a sixteen-inch shell must be far larger than that of a fourteen-inch. If you can get through the armour, it is worth while doing something inside with the explosion.

Another aspect is the number of turrets. What a waste to have four turrets, which I suppose weigh two thousand tons each, when three will give a bigger punch! With three turrets the centralisation of armour against gun-fire and torpedoes can be much more intense, and the decks all the more clear for the anti-aircraft batteries. If you ask your people to give you a legend for a sixteen-inch-gun ship, I am persuaded they would show you decidedly better proportions than could be achieved at fourteen-inch. Of course, there may be an argument about gunnery control, the spread of shot, etc., with which I am not familiar. Still, I should have thought that the optimum gunnery effect could be reached with salvos of four and five alternately.

Nothing would induce me to succumb to fourteen-inch if I were in your shoes. The Admiralty will look rather silly if they are committed to two fourteen-inch-gun ships, and both Japan and the United States go in for sixteen-inch a few months later. I should have thought it was quite possible to lie back and save six months in construction. It is terrible deliberately to build British battleships costing £7,000,000 apiece that are not the strongest in the world! As old Fisher used to say, “The British Navy always travels first class.”

However, these are only vaticinations! I went through all this in bygone years, or I would not venture to obtrude it on you. I will get in touch with Chatfield as you suggest.

The First Lord in no way resented my arguments and a considerable correspondence took place between us; and I also had several conversations with him and the First Sea Lord. Before leaving the Admiralty at the end of May, 1937, Sir Samuel Hoare sent me two memoranda prepared by the Naval Staff, one dealing with battleships and the other with cruisers. The Admiralty case about battleship design was that since the Washington Treaty Great Britain had continually pressed for a reduction in displacement and size of guns on grounds of economy. It had not been possible, when the new British battleships were at last sanctioned in 1936, to throw over the treaty limitations of the fourteen-inch gun or the 35,000-ton ship. The design of the battleships of the King George V class had to be started before it could become known whether other Powers would accept these limits as governing the immediate future. The turrets of the King George V class had in fact been ordered in May, 1936. Had the Admiralty delayed decision upon design until April, 1937, only two ships would be available by 1941, instead of five. Should foreign countries go beyond the Washington limits, the designs for the 1938 programme ships, which would be complete in 1942, could take a larger scope.

If, however, we should eventually be forced to go to fully balanced sixteen-inch-gun ships and not sacrifice any of the structural strength and other characteristics of the King George V class, there would be considerable increase in displacement. The resultant vessels could not pass through the Panama Canal and we should have to enlarge our docks as well as add to the cost of each ship. The Admiralty concurred with my preference for a ship of nine sixteen-inch-guns in three turrets, rather than one with ten fourteen-inch guns in four turrets. All their battleship designs were of ships having three “multi-gun turrets.”

After studying this long and massive paper, I recognised that we could not face the delay involved in putting larger guns in the first five battleships. The decision was irrevocable. I urged, however, that the designs for the larger guns and turrets should be completed as a precaution and that the tools and appliances necessary to adapt the gun-plants, etc., to the larger calibre should actually be made, even at considerable expense.

In my discussions with the Admiralty about battleship design, I had not appreciated the fact that they had designed and were in process of drawing-out quadruple turrets for the fourteen-inch gun, thus achieving a total of twelve guns. Had I realised this, I should have been forced to reconsider my view. The expression “multi-gun turrets” led to this misunderstanding on my part. Three quadruple turrets would have avoided many of the evils which I saw in a four-turret ship, and twelve fourteen-inch guns, though not the equal of nine sixteen-inch, were a considerable improvement in weight of metal.

However, the sequel of the Admiralty policy was unfortunate. Serious delays took place in the designing of the entirely novel quadruple turret for the fourteen-inch gun. No sooner had work been started upon this than the Admiralty Board decided to change the third turret superposed forward for a two-gun turret. This. of course, meant redesigning the two or three thousand parts which composed these amazing pieces of mechanism, and a further delay of at least a year in the completion of the King George V and Prince of Wales was caused by this change of plan. Moreover, our new ships were now reduced to ten guns, and all my arguments about the inferiority of their broadsides compared to sixteen-inch gun ships resumed their force. Meanwhile, the Americans got round the problem of putting three triple sixteen-inch turrets into a 35,000-ton hull. The French and the Germans chose the fifteen-inch gun, the French mounting eight guns in two quadruple turrets, and the Germans eight in four twin turrets. The Germans, however, like the Japanese, had no intention of being bound by any treaty limitations, and the Bismarck’s displacement exceeded 45,000 tons, with all the advantages which thus accrued. We alone, having after all these years at last decided to build five battleships on which the life of the Navy and the maintenance of sea power were judged to depend, went back from the sixteen-inch gun to the fourteen-inch, while others increased their calibres. We, therefore, produced a series of vessels, each taking five years to build, which might well have carried heavier gun-power.

* * * * *

On June 15, 1938, the First Sea Lord took me down to Portland to show me the “Asdics.” This was the name which described the system of groping for submarines below the surface by means of sound waves through the water which echoed back from any steel structure they met. From this echo the position of the submarine could be fixed with some accuracy. We were on the threshold of this development at the end of the First World War.

We slept on board the flagship and had a long talk with Sir Charles Forbes, the Commander-in-Chief. All the morning was spent at the Anti-Submarine School, and in about four hours I received a very full account. We then went to sea in a destroyer, and during the afternoon and evening an exercise of great interest was conducted for my benefit. A number of submarines were scattered about in the offing. Standing on the bridge of the destroyer which was using the Asdic, with another destroyer half a mile away, in constant intercourse, I could see and hear the whole process, which was the sacred treasure of the Admiralty, and in the culture of which for a whole generation they had faithfully persevered. Often I had criticised their policy. No doubt on this occasion I overrated, as they did, the magnitude of their achievement, and forgot for a moment how broad are the seas. Nevertheless, if this twenty years’ study had not been pursued with large annual expenditure and thousands of highly skilled officers and men employed and trained with nothing to show for it – all quite unmentionable – our problem in dealing with the U-boat, grievous though it proved, might well have found no answer but defeat.

To Chatfield I wrote:

I have reflected constantly on all that you showed me, and I am sure the nation owes the Admiralty, and those who have guided it, an inestimable debt for the faithful effort sustained over so many years which has, as I feel convinced, relieved us of one of our great dangers.

What surprised me was the clarity and force of the [Asdic] indications. I had imagined something almost imperceptible, certainly vague and doubtful. I never imagined that I should hear one of those creatures asking to be destroyed. It is a marvellous system and achievement.

The Asdics did not conquer the U-boat; but without the Asdics the U-boat would not have been conquered.

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