Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Admiral Fisher on the U-boat Threat

Say what you will about Admiral Jackie Fisher's big ship naval planning, and his fingerprints on the Gallipoli fiasco, he did see the biggest naval threat of the Great War coming just over the horizon.  

Admiral John "Jackie" Fisher

Until his retirement in 1910, Fisher warned how swarms of U-boats would make the "Narrow Seas" quite untenable by conventional warships. One of his publicists, retired army colonel Charles à Court Repington, "leaked" Fisher's views in a series of journal articles in 1910, which concluded that, "there will be no place for any great ship in the North Sea." With what turned out to be a surprising prescience, he painted a submarine anti-tonnage campaign that would affect the ability to feed "some tens of millions," cause a great rise in food and fuel prices and very possibly food riots. Since nothing had been invented or built to defeat the U-boat, he wrote, "Nothing we can effect with naval means can, with any certainty, prevent German submarines from putting to sea when they please, and from appearing off our coasts at their own sweet will."

Later, Admiral Fisher warned Prime Minister Asquith in a memorandum less than four months before war broke out of the near invulnerability of the submarine:  "(N)o word of a submarine destroyer has ever been heard because it has been forced upon us, by experience, that submarines cannot fight submarines, nor has any successful antidote been found even by the most bitter anti-submarine experts with unlimited means for experiments."

U-boat Raider in Action

However, right up to the war, Fisher was met with skepticism. Winston Churchill, then the Admiralty's First Lord fairly summed up this attitude in a memo to Admiral Fisher, after the latter had written that Germany would likely use her submarines against Britain's commerce. Churchill thought his senior naval officer had written an "excellent" paper [on the German naval threat] but that it was "to some extent, marred by the prominence" it gave to the idea of a U-boat commerce war. "I do not believe," he wrote, "this would ever be done by a civilized power."

Source: Historian Jan Breemer, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School


  1. Reminds me of William "Billy" Mitchell and his bombing experiment on the Ostfrieland. The Japanese took his example to heart, using his technique to great effect in their 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor!

  2. Warning by military analysts is often taken as suspect by others who's careers are well versed in the traditional aspects of war. This is especially true when it is on the cusp of a major military technical development. But the records are often there, in hindsight, for postmortems or for the astute military leader who studies and prepares for war. And in so doing, becomes a hallmark of leadership.