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When the Fear of Dreadnaughts Fails

by Gormack on February 26th, 2016

Failure is a complicated thing, becoming more so in the aftermath as the assignment of blame progresses!

It was said by some, including Churchill himself, that Gallipoli was a failure of execution. And that was most certainly true: planning was inept; resources inadequate; the element of surprise was squandered. A case in point was the Royal Navy’s provision of minesweepers that were woefully ill-suited to their tasks; not strong enough even to contend with powerful currents in the straights.

But beyond operational difficulties, the concept was spectacularly flawed: British warships were to sail straight up the Dardanelles to Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. And that without ground forces; without consideration for powerful shore batteries; and with minimal concern for extensive minefields!

So what if the fleet had steamed up into the sea of Marmara and arrived off of Constantinople. What would they have done there? The Turks, incapacitated by fear, would simply surrender their seven hundred year old empire to a few thousand British sailors?

A moot point; for ships sank in the minefields or were incapacitated by shore batteries without making any impression on the Turkish defenses. The following amphibious campaign settled into a drawn out slogging match before the King’s forces reluctantly acknowledged ignominious defeat and slunk back to Britain.

It was bad for Winston; the First Sea Lord lost his job and remained on the sidelines until he was made relevant again courtesy of Herr Hitler.

Now the Prime Minister had a new enemy to intimidate in the Far East: the Japanese.

He sent Force Z, a powerful naval squadron anchored by the powerful battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, to Singapore. Surely Japanese resolve would collapse at the sight of these powerful representatives of the world’s greatest empire.

Though the British themselves had administered a devastating blow to the Italian Navy at Taranto in the previous year with a handful of outmoded Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, they were oblivious to the need for air cover for their warships.

The Japanese, unintimidated, replied to this British threat with their own air forces and sent both Prince of Wales and Repulse to the bottom.

Again there were serious errors in execution, but a common denominator for both defeats was an underestimation of the enemy bordering on contempt, and a corresponding disregard for his capabilities.

The loss of Singapore followed on the heels of the destruction of Force Z. Winston’s office survived these disasters, but in his memoirs he describes some agonized and sleepless nights!

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