chapter  7
22 Pages

How it worked: understanding the interaction of some environmental and technological realities of naval operations in the opening years of the First World War, 1914–1916

The outbreak of the First World War came at a particularly difficult time for navies, principally because there had been so many very recent technological innovations, each of which in itself meant profound changes for the way in which fleets were operated and which together brought a whole new level of complexity. Many of these challenges have been explored in recent years and our understanding, even if still evolving, of the tactical implications has become much more complete. Nevertheless, there were many wider operational problems which are less well understood, but which directly affected the direction and working of formations at sea, as well as individual ships. The interaction of technological factors with environmental conditions was becoming ever more complicated, in ways that were only just becoming apparent. Much remained to be learned, let alone understood. 1

Navigation and environment That the North Sea and the Baltic were difficult regions for accurate navigation was recognised by all the protagonists, but the demands of operations soon revealed that there was no room for complacency, even before navigational markers and beacons were removed and coastal lights doused. Navigational limitations dogged the smaller ships in particular. By the end of the Battle of the Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914, one destroyer was 25 miles 2 out in her reckoning (and her navigator frankly admitted that, before making this discovery, ‘no one, needless to say, had the slightest idea where we were’). 3 A few days earlier another British destroyer had managed to put herself some 60 miles wrong after confusing Dutch shore lights with similar characteristics, 4 while both German 5 and British 6 light craft during the Scarborough Raid in December were up to 15 miles in error. However, the big ships had similar problems. After three days at sea conducting exercises with the remainder of the Grand Fleet in November 1914, the battleship Orion found herself twelve miles out in her reckoning when land was sighted. 7 An experienced fleet navigator later acknowledged that he ‘never expected to be 8

even larger by the skill of expert navigators, there were good reasons for this uncertainty. Not only were there no artificial position finding aids, but many of the basic tools carried significant inherent errors. The magnetic compass had been the key system for navigation for hundreds of years, but magnetic units were affected by variations in the local magnetic field (variation), as well as those from fixed and moving metal items in the ship’s structure (deviation) – rotating turrets could affect the instrument, as could the concussion of gunfire or even the changing thermal signature of a funnel located too close to the compass platform (as in the Orion class). There were also emerging worries about the possibility of electrical interference 9 – the beginning of a problem that would increasingly influence warship design and upper deck layout in later decades. Although the British had recently introduced 360 degree markings, the imprecision of magnetic compasses meant that many courses were still set and reports made using the old 32 point (11¼ degrees) system. Gyroscopic compasses promised an important improvement and their fit became wider as the war progressed (although it did not extend to destroyers in the Royal Navy until well into the 1920s). Nevertheless, the gyro itself was subject to inaccuracies. During trials in 1910, the first British units proved unreliable because of the effects of motion in a seaway (something that the German U-9 also discovered in her October 1914 sortie) and it was only in 1912 that an improved unit became available. 10 At the outbreak of war, amongst the surface ships, only the 13.5” gun super-dreadnoughts were fitted. In heavy weather the performance of even the modified units proved ‘unsatisfactory and caused very large errors’. 11 At 15 knots, a compass error of just one degree generated an error of more than half a mile in two hours.