Chapter LXXIV: Family Meeting Part II - A Matter of Naval Planning
There are many who recommend that the key to understanding almost any political problem or issue is to 'follow the money', sage advice so long as one keeps in mind the broadest definition of money and follows the ebb and flow of resources of all kinds. In such vein when considering the issue of British foreign policy the advice would be to follow the fleet, the deployments and disposition of the Royal Navy being a far better indication than any number of memos, speeches and briefings from the Foreign Office. It is therefore no surprise that the Imperial Conference saw Australia and New Zealand keen to see the previously theoretical defence plans become reality through actual warship movements.
At first glance the decision should have been simple; successive Committees of Imperial Defence had stated the Far East would be reinforced if the need arose or when the Mediterranean calmed down, whichever was the sooner. After the defeat of Italy the only ships of note in the region, baring the French of course, were the Spanish Republic's two ancient Espana class battleships and an equally venerable Turkish battle-cruiser. As war with France was considered exceptionally unlikely, even after the chilling of relations, and the Admiralty believed a squadron of heavy cruiser would suffice to counter the other vessels there was seemingly no reason to maintain a strong Mediterranean Fleet. This should have left those vessels free to be deployed East, yet in reality strong opposition would be mounted to the very idea of sending a fleet to Singapore.
The TCG Yavuz, flagship of the Turkish Fleet. Formerly the SMS Goeben she was a Moltke class battle-cruiser that had been transferred to the Ottoman Empire during the Great War and then retained by Turkey. During a four year overhaul in the late 1920s to repair war damage and bring her back into service the Yavuz had been barely modernised, indeed the effects of age and wear in service had left her considerably less effective than her original configuration. Despite this it was the opinion of the Admiralty that she was the biggest non-French threat in the Mediterranean, though as the rivals were the smaller, slower and badly maintained Spanish Espana battleships nothing too impressive should be read into this. As with the Espana's the Admiralty believed the speed, accuracy and superior crew of a County class should make it a fair match with the Yavuz, making a whole County squadron more than sufficient.
Before going into the issue in depth it will be valuable to establish the background. The Royal Navy's planning for the Far East had been developed over many decades through the War Memorandum (Eastern), most recently revised in 1933. This document covered the general strategy for the Far East, covering what ships to send, how they would get there, repair and refuelling for the force and an outline strategy of how to win. Through the memorandum the Royal Navy had argued for and received the vast Singapore complex of docks, storage and fortifications, indeed the entire Singapore fortress only existed to protect the dry docks and oil tanks. It had also been the driver for the network of refuelling bases from Suez to Singapore, most notably in Aden and Ceylon, to support any fleet movement and as staging points for the tanker train needed to keep any deployed force supplied. In terms of grand strategy the assumption had always been that any war would be defensive in nature, with Japan as the aggressor and Britain aiming for a negotiated surrender through economic blockade and destruction of the Japanese fleet. In broad terms the war strategy could be broken down into four stages;
* Phase I - Relief of Singapore.
* Phase II - Relief/Recapture of Hong Kong.
* Phase III - Northward advance to draw the Japanese fleet into decisive battle.
* Phase IV - Complete the economic starvation of Japan through blockade and convoy warfare, forcing Japan to negotiate or surrender.
The astute reader will note the first phases imply the Royal Navy arriving in force only after the war has started and the main British bases in the region have been besieged. This was not just a 'worst case' plan that assumed Japan achieved total tactical surprise but also an acknowledgement that the Royal Navy did not intend to permanently base a substantial fleet in the Far East. Originally this had been due to practicality, while the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Betty, had wanted to station a battle-cruiser squadron in the Far East in the early 1920s, he had been thwarted by the lack of a dockyard capable of supporting anything larger than a cruiser for an extended period. After the enormous floating drydock was installed in Singapore harbour in the late 1920s that became less of an issue, indeed in pursuit of a truly modern base of operations the Admiralty had commissioned the vast King George VI drydock to allow Singapore to handle even the largest vessels on the DNC's drawing boards. However by the time such practicalities had been addressed politics and economics had intervened, changing the nature of the problem.
To deal with the later it was quite simply very expensive for the Royal Navy to maintain a large squadron 8,000 miles away from Britain. Quite aside from the large tanker train needed to keep the required weekly supply of fuel from the refineries, all the food, ammunition, spares and other supplies and victuals a modern fleet needed would have to be transported from Britain to Singapore, a large expense for government finances squeezed by the depression. There was therefore considerable opposition from the Treasury to any such plans, particularly given the vast sums already expended on 'Fortress Singapore' and the network of refuelling bases across the Indian Ocean. The other problem, the politics, came in the form of the Washington and London naval treaties which had seen the Royal Navy lose considerable numbers of battleships, to the point where the Naval Staff no longer believed they could maintain two 'effective' fleets. As the Admiralty fundamentally objected to 'ineffective' forces, that is squadrons too small, or not powerful enough, to the war time job required of them, they determined the Eastern Fleet would be an all or nothing affair; either all of the fleet battleships needed to defeat Japan or none of them. As economics and political reality would not allow the fleet to be permanently based in Singapore the Far East got nothing larger than a heavy cruiser. Instead the Admiralty plan was for the light forces of the China Station to harass and delay any advance on Singapore until such time as the main fleet could make the 40 day transit from Home Waters or the 30 day journey from the Mediterranean. Once the main fleet had arrived, assuming Singapore had held out, it would execute the general war plan outlined above.
The battle lines were thus drawn, opposed to the plan were the Royal Navy (unwilling to disperse the fleet), the Treasury (who baulked at the cost) and the Board of Trade (alarmed at the disruption to the Merchant Marine the vast supporting fleet train would cause). Against this most rare alliance of Admiralty and Treasury were the Antipodean Dominions and the Dominion Office for obvious reasons, the Foreign Office (keen to see a force in the East to 'fly the flag') and a general sense that Austrlia was 'due' such a deployment, in recognition of the sterling service of the RAAF in North Africa and her steadfast support for the war. In the end the pro-deployment faction won out, Chancellor Leo Amery weakening the Treasury's opposition to defence spending while the Royal Navy's case was, ironically, undermined by their own insistence that Japan was a real threat. While motivated as much by a desire for higher defence spending as any real appraisal of the threat, their view had been wholly accepted by a political class still chastened by the shock of the Abyssinian War. There was therefore a political need to 'do something' about Imperial defence and, more importantly, be seen to be 'doing something'. The gesture of a force being sent to Singapore was deemed to fit the bill perfectly, it would reassure the public the government was on the case, keep the Dominions happy they had a voice in defence matters and 'send a message' to deter Japan. Though out-manoeuvred the Admiralty could draw comfort from the fact that the Japanese threat was still believed to be mostly theoretical and that by spreading the fleet so thin they had ensured the naval estimates would remain well funded.
HMS Malaya, after a successful Abyssinian War where she had accounted for more than her fair share of enemy ship her reward was a return 'home' to her sponsors, the Federated Malay States. Despite a hastily completed two year refit just prior to the war Malaya was not as capable as the more thoroughly modernised Queen Elizabeth, having received neither the longer ranged Mk2 'high elevation' 15" turrets or the more efficient small-tube Admiralty boilers. Despite this she remained an effective warship and as one of the relatively few vessels afloat to have actual combat 'kills' to her name would attract the crowds on the many port visit made while transiting to Singapore. For the Foreign Office her presence in the Far East would be invaluable, as one senior mandarin put it "The navy is the chief sanction of our Foreign Policy, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that every Foreign Office telegram is backed by it" and as such it was hoped Malaya would aid in deterring Japan and adding weight to the pressure being applied to still neutral Siam.
So we come to the disposition of forces where we see that Home Waters retained it's primacy, if not in raw numbers then certainly in priority. Both the Nelsons, arguably the most powerful warships afloat in 1936, were retained by Home Fleet with HMS Nelson herself as flagship, in addition HMS Renown and HMS Repulse were retained as the Battle-cruiser Squadron to counter the threat of Germanys Deutschland class 'pocket battleships' that could easily outrun the lumbering Nelsons. Home Fleet also kept two carriers, the battleship sinkers HMS Eagle and HMS Courageous, and the pick of the cruisers and destroyer flotillas. Moving south North Atlantic Command, previously home to a handful of ancient 'C' class cruisers the Admiralty had despatched two 'R' class battleships to serve the diplomatic role of reminding the warring nations in Spain of the power of the Royal Navy. Also operating out of Gibraltar were the heavy cruisers of Force K which enforced the informal British blockade and escorted the many 'independent' merchant convoys. The Mediterranean Fleet itself was reduced to only two 'R's and the carrier Hermes, the presence of most of the Revenge class in or around the Mediterranean a consequence of the Admiralty doubting their value against either Germany or Japan, thus making the Med, with it's more limited opposition, their natural theatre. Before leaving the region the new Suez Station should be noted, though comprised of but a single squadron of 'D' class cruisers she was another symptom of the political will to be seen to act, no matter how late or ineffectively. Finally we come to the object of the exercise, the Eastern Fleet. After the detachments elsewhere, and with almost 25% of the fleet either in repair or long term refit, the force sent comprised three Queen Elizabeths and two carriers. In the opinion of the Admiralty it was exactly the wrong size, too small to fight the Japanese main fleet but big enough it's loss would materially affect the balance of power, however as the threat was believed to be low and the deployment presumed temporary it was considered a risk worth taking to ensure a steady flow of new tonnage.
Home Fleet - Portsmouth
Eastern Fleet - Singapore
North Atlantic Command - Gibraltar
Force K - Gibraltar
8th Cruiser Squadron (County class)
Mediterranean Fleet - Valletta
Suez Station - Alexandria
7th Cruiser Squadron ('D' class)
20th Cruiser Squadron (Hawkins class)
Suez Station, not the most respected of commands as the motto of the unofficial crest shows, the Latin roughly translating as "After the horse bolted." Despite inauspicious beginnings it would a busy station, the Eastern Mediterranean was a decidedly unstable place at the end of 1936 with turmoil in Italy as the economy collapsed, industrial riots in Greece and instability in Turkey as President Atatürk's health declined. In such an environment the ships of Suez Station would regularly find themselves escorting HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution, 'flying the flag' in foreign ports as London tried to apply pressure or show support throughout the region.
With the Royal Navy dealt with we now turn our attention to the Army and RAF, while the fleet had always been dominant in Far Eastern plans the other services were agitating for a role beyond 'slotting in' where the Admiralty plans ordered. The Imperial Conference would show the Dominions were fully supportive of such a position, while they lacked the industrial might to be anything more than a squadron of the Royal Navy, the Australian experience had shown they could punch well above their weight in the other services. An increased aerial or land role therefore was their way into grand strategy, something that caused great disquiet among more conservative elements in London. The discussion therefore turned to the next revision of the War Memorandum (East), traditionally reviewed every four years the contents, and indeed the authors, of the 1937 revision would form the next battleground between the services and between London and the Dominions.
OK so I'm completely of the short update wagon, that was quite a titan but, I hope, worth it.
As it happens I don't think the Abyssinian War would change British plans for the Far East that much, OTL it wasn't till a bit later in the decade that N. Chamberlain and Backhouse started the process of abandoning the Far East with 90 day deployment plans and hedging promise of reinforcements. So at this stage it's business as usual, but without the distraction of the Italian fleet and with perhaps a bit more appreciation that surprises can happen.
To the actual deployment, it is a bit on the small side and I don't think the Admiralty would be keen on diluting their forces. However Keyes was a political animal so as First Sea Lord I think he would play the game, spreading the fleet thin to justify more expenditure while ensuring the Far Eastern fleet is under orders to keep itself alive and do nothing silly in the unlikely event of war.
On the repair/refits Warspite and Revenge are just in to get battle damage fixed, while Hood and Valiant are getting much needed upgrades while being repaired. The plan is to cycle ships around as the capital ship upgrade programme get accelerated, no game effect though. Perhaps I should get Armageddon for that reason? While talking ships the captured Italian cruisers are still being taken apart by the DNC, expect them to make an appearance in the next update as a carrot dangled at the Aussies.
On which note, next update will see the RAF/Army plans for the Far East and fallout from the RAAF outperforming the RAF at the start of the war. Plus some other Imperial Conference chat that I think doesn't deserve it's own update but should be covered.