Thursday, June 1, 2017

Jutland at 101: Day of the Dreadnoughts

Grand Fleet at sea

A century, a year, and a day ago, giants clashed across the North Sea. It was the single grand set-piece engagement of the big gun battleship era. Nothing like it was ever seen again, or probably ever will be.

Battleships and their dreadnought cousins, battlecruisers, loom large in our collective imagination. They were and are inherently operatic. Space opera, in particular, emerged as a genre during the dreadnought era. And while it may often favor swords or space fighters, on some level space opera is really all about Dreadnoughts in SPAAACE !!!

If you doubt this, take a look once again at the opening scene of the original Star Wars movie. No lightsabers are to be seen, nor even a space fighter. What we see is a spaceship - no small one - in desperate flight ... to be overtaken by a truly looming, immense, unmistakable battlecruiser.

We know it is a battlecruiser, rather than a battleship, because of its hunting-down role, something that Jackie Fisher would have identified without hesitation as a battlecruiser mission.

And yes, franchise canon describes this majestic ship as a 'star destroyer' but we are not fooled. Perhaps George Lucas was hazy on his 20th century naval terminology, or perhaps he felt that, in those days, battlecruiser belonged to the rival Star Trek franchise.

No longer. While battlecruisers continue to have a somewhat sketchy reputation among seagoing dreadnoughts (see below), they have clearly overcome their slower if more heavily armored cousins in the battle for the stars.

Google battleship, click Images, and you get pictures of historical seagoing battleships. Google battlecruiser and you mostly get renditions of operatic spaceships, with a mere scattering of seagoing vessels. (Battle cruiser as two words brings up a slightly different sequence of images, but equally space dominated.)

It is not quite clear why, of the two dreadnought* types, battlecruisers have become so predominant in space. Perhaps, for Americans at least, Pearl Harbor looms larger than Jutland. If battleships only ever existed in order to be obsolescent sitting ducks for Japanese carrier planes, their potential as terrors of the spaceways is diminished.

* Dreadnought is used inclusively here, applied to all big-gun capital ships, though the term was not often applied to new battleships once pre-dreadnoughts had faded from the scene.

On the other hand, the US Navy never had any battlecruisers, or at least never admitted to having any. Six were under construction during World War I, but under terms of the Washington Treaty two were finished as aircraft carriers while the others were scrapped before completion. The Alaska class of World War II was described officially as mere 'large cruisers', and their wartime service was brief, uneventful, and overshadowed by the much larger Iowa class 'fast battleships'. 

Independent of their role in science fiction, dreadnoughts have their own mythology. As recently as 1991, a book with the evocative title Sacred Vessels repeated the popular (pseudo-) contrarian argument that dreadnoughts were an inherently bad idea, impressive and expensive but with little actual fighting value.

The fact that there was only ever one grand clash of dreadnoughts - Jutland - and that it was not a classically decisive battle, is often implicitly offered as evidence of this proposition. In fact, battleships and battlecruisers mixed it up on multiple occasions in World War II, though in much smaller numbers than at Jutland. Running fights with one to three capital ships ships on a side was the usual pattern.

This makes Fisher's original conception of the battlecruiser somewhat prescient. In the early 1900s he argued that the time for stately formal engagements was passing, and that future war at sea would be, in modern terms, 'kinetic' - reliant more on speed and shock than pure mass. The experience of the 1940s generally bore him out.

And - again, quite apart from science fiction - battlecruisers have their own mythology, a myth that has undergone considerable evolution.

Three British battlecruisers exploded at Jutland, and went down with nearly their entire crews. These disasters were long attributed mainly to insufficient armor protection, and the whole battlecruiser concept was often denounced on this grounds.

In recent times, however, much more of the blame for the battlecruisers' losses has been placed on operational and doctrinal errors. The British battlecruiser force put great emphasis on rapid fire of their main guns - which doctrine, like the ships' speed, was part of the emerging kinetic vision of war at sea.

But the emphasis on rapid fire led gunners to ignore safety precautions such as properly closing anti-flash doors, so that when turrets were hit the resulting internal fires spread down to the magazines - with predictably catastrophic results.

The modern source linked above perhaps overstates the conspiratorial element in the traditional story about armor. I have 'always' known that flash protection was also lacking, so the shift is less a matter of new revelations and more a re-evaluation of what was already known. (Though perhaps it wasn't clear that flash doors were already in place, but not correctly used.)

This is often how scholarship proceeds, a cycle not unlike the fashion cycle. Perhaps by the 2060s a re-re-evaluation will again say that battlecruisers blew up because they were eggshells armed with hammers.

In the meanwhile, battlecruisers may well continue to rule the spaceways - as they deserve to. And readers of this blog may continue to suspect that laserstars, for all my disclaimers to the contrary, and details of armament and configuration, are still essentially Dreadnoughts in Space.

Play the Jupiter theme from Holst's The Planets, and decide for yourself.


The image of the British Grand Fleet at sea comes, unsurprisingly, from a web account of the battle.

And we previously considered the last battleship, along with the proto-battleships of the (actual, historical) steampunk era.