With the leaders of France and Germany having marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun a few days ago and which commemorated a 10 month long battle during which 300,000 French and German soldiers lost their lives we ourselves recall today with great sadness another battle that took place in the North Sea one hundred years today when the Royal Navy and the German Navy faced each other in the Battle of Jutland.
I am not proposing to engage here in the rights and wrongs, strengths, weaknesses and failings of people and capability used in the Battle of Jutland or attempt to provide a view on who won or lost the largest naval battle of the Great War. In truth neither side won or lost but both were seriously damaged as a result. As the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones wrote in an article published in the Daily Telegraph today has suggested, “The battle itself revealed serious shortcomings in the tactics of the Royal Navy fleet that had previously enjoyed and aura of invincibility”. Suffice to say that whatever tactics, failed communications or leadership issues that may have influenced both sides in the battle there can be little argument that the huge disparity in ship losses (the British lost far more ships than the Germans did) was most likely caused by the superiority of German gunnery over that of Admiral Beatty’s six battle cruisers.
Today the, we remember not only the 6,000 Royal Navy and 2,500 German sailors who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland but are reminded as well that after Jutland lessons needed to be learned. They always are and we need to be constantly reminded that we don’t always get it right. We are through events and occasions such as this reminded too of why maintaining a strong and vibrant Royal Navy is so necessary for an island nation state such as ourselves. Clearly, as far as our government is concerned there are still lessons to be learned over capability shortage.
(Note that the HRH Princess Anne [HRH the Duke of Edinburgh having been advised against attending the above event on medical advice] together with Prime Minister David Cameron will represent that nations commemorations on Orkney later today in remembering a battle which occasioned 250 warships of both navies to be engaged in a major clash and that led to the deaths of more than 8,500 British and German sailors. Sailors from both the Royal Navy and German Navy will throw thousands of poppies and forget-me-nots into the North Sea at the actual site of the clash at Jutland Bank off the Danish coast beneath which lie the wrecks of many ships.)
Writing in the Daily Telegraph today the First Sea Lord (1SL) also gave timely and necessary reminders that sea power remains key to Britain’s defence and prosperity. 1SL went on to suggest in the piece “that the sea is Britain’s front line and the country must be able to deliver both the soft touch of preventative engagement and the hard punch of military power”. He said that the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916 was “a necessary reminder of the enduring significance of sea power to the defence and to the prosperity of our island nation”. “A century later”, he said “navies remain a way in which nations compete for regional dominance and demonstrate strategic ambition to a global audience”.
I agree every word that 1SL has said in the article today and I believe with a passion that we need to bang messages like this home again and again until those in authority and power finally get the message. I would have to say that having just 19 frigates and destroyers the Royal Navy has never over the past one hundred years been in such a weak position as it is today. The increased level of threats against us require a need for more capital ships, more capability and more manpower in the Royal Navy. We need enhanced capability in the ships that we build in order to counter what our would-be enemies have. We need these as a deterrent against threats, for the defence of our islands and trade routes, for the role that we play within NATO and for our other international requirements.
Before moving on allow me to add some of some other poignant remarks made in the article by Admiral Sir Philip Jones:
Today, as was the case a century ago, navies are a means through which nations compete for regional dominance and demonstrate strategic ambition to a global audience. It’s no coincidence that four of the fastest developing countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are building aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines, or aspire to do so.
Britain no longer faces an existential threat from across the North Sea: but our security challenges are varied and global in nature, and they frequently confound our assumptions. Few predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea or that the Arab Spring would unleash such discord across North Africa. Meanwhile, instability across the Middle East shows no sign of lessening, and maritime territorial disputes are at play in the High North and the Far East. As an outward-looking trading nation, with partnerships and alliances throughout the world, all these security challenges have the ability to affect both our economic interests and our national security.
For Britain, the sea is our frontline. In partnership with our allies, we must work to deliver both the soft touch of preventative engagement and the hard punch of military power, wherever in the world our interests are at stake. As we remember those from both sides who perished in the North Sea on May 31 1916, Jutland serves as a necessary reminder of the enduring significance of sea power to the defence and prosperity of our island nation.
We need Royal Navy ships and we need a lot more than we currently have. We need them for reassurance, to play a role in defence diplomacy and to show UK presence and that, as the sixth largest economy in the world, we wish to play our part on the global stage in terms of securing peace, stability and harmony. Most of all we need them for UK defence.
Today we are struggling with too little maritime capability. It is no use being reminded that soon we will have not one but two superb aircraft carriers in the fleet when the role that we play and the dangers that we face require more frigates and destroyers. The extra Offshore Patrol Vessels being built will of course be very useful but being designed for a different role these should not be seen as replacement capability for frigates and destroyers. We need to get on with the Type 23 replacement programme and stop wasting time and resource on delaying the start of building the Type 26 replacements. We also need to stop pushing programmes back and to get on with the Trident vote and the ultimate Successor replacement. The bottom line is that the need for more Royal Navy surface ships and trained personnel including increased numbers of trained engineers and technicians that enable the ship capability to do its job at sea. In a period that we might still call peacetime, the Royal Navy’s needs have probably never been greater.
European Defence Spending / NATO 2% GDP
On another subject I note that the Financial Times is today highlighting that defence spending by Europe’s NATO member states will rise [this year] for the first time in nearly a decade. The report says that European members of NATO (including the UK) spent $253 billion on defence last year compared with $618 billion spent on defence by the US and that, if the agreed commitment by NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defence was to be met that European NATO member states would need to spend an additional $100 billion annually on their militaries in order to comply.
Europe, and that includes the UK, needs a severe wake-up call when it comes to realising the need to spend more on defence. That 26 of the 28 non-North American members should spend little more than 30% of what the US spends is unacceptable. It is a myth that countries such as the UK are already spending 2% of GDP on real defence and we should be ashamed of ourselves for not taking the lead that we pretended we had on this issue following the Wales NATO summit of 2014. In any case, instead of each country ‘working toward’ spending 2% of GDP on defence those that have a reasonable level of choice in terms of how they spend their national wealth should be presented with an aim of spending 4% of GDP on defence.
(Readers may also wish to note that on July 1st a 100th year commemorative service will be held at the Thiepval Memorial, Picardy, France which, designed by Edward Lutyens in 1932, is dedicated to the 72,195 British and South African servicemen who died in the Battle of the Somme. Subsequent to this event, British and French Governments will be hosting a much larger event to remember the total 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties of this awful 141 day battle in which so many lost their lives).
CHW (London – 31st May 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS