Reflections on the 2017 McMullen Naval History Symposium


This year’s biennial McMullen Naval History Symposium, hosted by the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, was a total success. This world-class conference featured a plethora of fascinating panels on subjects ranging from contemporary Canadian naval policy to Julius Caesar’s appreciation of naval power. As always, with a conference of this scale involving hundreds of historians and participants, any one person is only able to see a fraction of the total panels, so individual experience does matter. The conference was not generally digitized, thus, reflections from the participants provide the only method for intersubjectively preserving the experience itself, and there have already been (David Morgan-Owen) several (Trent Hone) contributions (Matthew Eng) in that regard.

The conference was organized by the vigilant Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, one of the “New Young Turks” relentlessly in pursuit of greater historical appreciation amongst the cadets and midshipmen of the growing United States Navy, not to mention a senior editor with the all-star blog, War on the Rocks. Commander Armstrong also edited the “21st Century” Mahan and Sims volumes for the US Naval Institute Press. The major themes at this years conference were the First World War (naturally enough considering the centenary), global and imperial history, seapower in the Age of Sail, the Asian and the Pacific theatres, the Second World War, naval education, and the evolution of naval technology in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Day One: September 14, 2017


From left to right: Panel Chair John Beeler, Louis Halewood, Alex Howlett, and David Kohnen (photo credit, Tim Choi)

I was a presenter on one of the first panels, along with Louis Halewood and David Kohnen. My paper on the Royal Naval Air Service and the development of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) 1917-1918, examined the impact of changing administration during wartime, and the organizational learning that took place in an unprecedented and high-technology environment. Louis Halewood described his research on the development of the Anglo-American theory of geostrategy, raising the prospect of the pre-1914 “Imperial Superstate” concept, notably diagnosed by historians such as Carroll Quigley, and Ramsay Muir. Louis Halewood introduced the influential work of luminaries such as Hartford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, Spencer Wilkinson, and Lord Milner, theorists of naval and military power, strategy and imperial defence, who would all reappear with regularity in the politically charged panels and discussions to follow. Ultimately, the unity of the Wilsonian Anglo-American alliance broke down in the interwar period, in no small measure due to the challenge to British naval supremacy from the United States, in the process destroying the Anglo-Japanese alliance, with profound implications for Britain’s role in the Second World War.

David Kohnen discussed his research on the Knox-Pye-King report, a significant paper published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings in 1920, bringing to the US Navy (USN) the strategic focus which had been raised in the British school, in particular, by the pre-war historians John Laughton, Julian Corbett, and Captain Herbert Richmond. Captains Ernie King, Dudley Knox and William Pye had been influenced by the irresistible force of Admiral William Sims, one of the significant contributors to the argument in favour of introducing trans-Atlantic convoys, a deciding factor in the victory over the U-boats in 1917-1918. David Kohnen argued that the modern USN had a worrying predilection for defaulting to technological dogma, with the result of the Navy utilizing the acronym saturated language of the Defense Department to stress uncritical “warfighting” instead of historical engagement and peacekeeping as the basis for doctrine.


Right to left: Panel chair Caitlin Gale, presenters Anna Brinkman, David Morgan-Owen, Paul Ramsey, and commentator Andrew Lambert (photo credit, Tim Choi)

With turn of the century grand strategy on my mind, I moved to the panel specifically examining British foreign policy, with the first paper given by Anna Brinkman (of Imperial Entanglements fame), on Britain’s strategy for managing Spain during the Seven Years War, a complex subject that relied on the interaction between significant stakeholders, Britain and Spain’s differing conceptions of the law of the sea, and the emerging balance of power in Europe. David Morgan-Owen, the brains behind the Defence-in-Depth blog, next brought the discussion into the 19th and 20th centuries by examining Britain’s evolving European and global situation, a subject that hinges on the the sticky topic of imperial and homeland defence, explored further in David’s new book. The expansion of the Committee for Imperial Defence by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour in 1904 was a watershed moment, ultimately leading to the development of conflicting army and naval strategies during the government of Herbert Asquith. Lastly, Paul Ramsey examined Spenser Wilkinson’s debate with historian Julian Corbett about the proper relation of Britain’s foreign and military policy to national strategy, a historically and politically charged sparring played out in the popular press. Professor Andrew Lambert, who was the panel commentator, observed the intricate connections between the papers, with Corbett, a scholar of the Seven Years War and Russo-Japanese War, visualizing Britain’s naval role as a component of an integrated system that only made sense once the land dynamic, with a debt to Clausewitz and Jomini, was integrated.


Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson announces the winners of the CNO’s inaugural Naval History Essay Contest (photo credit, Tim Choi)

With this auspicious start, the conference was on a sound footing. I enjoyed lunch in the beautiful Bo Coppedge Room, at the Alumni Hall, where I had an enjoyable conversation with a young officer and naval scholar on the fascinating subjects of Athens versus Sparta, US Marine Corps culture, and the recent Graham Allison book, The Thucydides Trap, concerning the possibility of American conflict with China in the 21st century. I was impressed with the student’s insight, candor, and breadth of knowledge, all of which I found refreshing (as was the key-lime cheesecake). Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson then presented the awards to the winners of the inaugural Naval History Essay Contest, which promised to raise the bar for scholarly research amongst historians and practitioners alike.

After lunch we headed to the final panel for the first day, again focused on British naval policy in the 19th century. By this point the conference was beginning to resemble a choose your own type of adventure. This was both an advantage and disadvantage of the conference’s scale and international reach. Breaking out of my own area of interest was certainly possible, with simultaneous panels taking place on American, South American, and Second World War naval history, all of which would have been fascinating to attend, if not especially related to my research focus. The conference organizers did the attendees a service by arranging the panels in such a manner that overlap was minimal and it was a fairly straightforward process to figure out which panel was the best choice for my own preferences.

This panel was chaired by John Mitcham, and the first paper was presented by John Beeler, the editor of the Navy Record Society’s Milne papers, on the subject of the Liberal party’s naval policy during the late 19th century. Beeler, who literally wrote the book on the subject, argued that the questionable choices of the Liberal party in terms of naval policy were an indication of a lack of clear strategic thinking, compared to Salisbury’s vision. The nuances of the political situation was emphasized by Peter Keeling, who followed this thread by specifically expanding on the Liberal party’s 1889 Naval Defence Act with original research that examined who voted for and against the Act, and why. Presenting the last paper of the day, Rebecca Matzke, in a fascinating paper reminiscent of the work of Michael Neiberg, discussed the efforts of British propagandists to influence American public perception of the Royal Navy’s war effort, in particular, as it related to the Royal Navy’s blockade and Germany’s counter-blockade (the unrestricted U-boat campaign). Taken together, this panel explored the interrelation of optics, how public support is galvanized by policymakers and NGOs, and the realities of budgetary and geostrategic constraints, firmly recognizing that military policy is never formed in a vacuum, and more often than not, is the result of a complex patchwork of influence.


James Goldrick delivers the 2017 McMullen Sea Power address in Mahan Hall, (photo credit, Tim Choi)

Thus we adjourned for day one. The next event was the McMullen Sea Power address to be held later that evening in the appropriately named Mahan Hall. Taking advantage of the warm evening air while moving between buildings, I stopped the always approachable James Goldrick for a brief discussion that touched on wide-ranging concepts such as Britain’s anti-submarine defence in the First World War, Germany’s strategic bombing campaigns in two world wars, and the origins of aircraft carrier strike doctrine. I was impressed as always by Professor Goldrick’s erudition. In this spirit of historical reflection, the conference participants made their way over to the fantastic US Naval Academy Museum. After touring amongst the excellent warship models and artifact displays, discussing defence policy with friends, I was stunned into a moment of clarity by news which spread like fire between the attendees that North Korea had launched yet another long-range missile, dramatically bringing home the importance of the subjects we had discussed, in otherwise academic detachment, throughout the day.

Not much more than an hour later I was sitting on the balcony of Mahan Hall watching Rear-Admiral (retired) Goldrick, Royal Australian Navy, deliver the formal 2017 Sea Power address. Professor Goldrick delivered his keynote directly to the young midshipmen sitting across from me on both wings of the balcony, and strove to reconcile the need for thorough professionalism within military education, transcending technological determinism, while also avoiding the other end of the spectrum, ivory tower detachment, a synthesis rare enough amongst long-time scholars yet also essential to the future of service culture: the next generation of young scholar-officers.

Day Two: September 15, 2017


From left to right: Trent Hone, Wes Hammond, and John Miller, USN.

With three excellent panels on Anglo-American and imperial naval history behind me, I decided to start off day two on a slightly different tact. There would be four panels to see, and I felt it was time to broaden the discussion by revisiting some areas of interest from my previous academic work. Easing into things I visited the panel highlighting some of the winners of the CNO’s essay contest, starting with Trent Hone’s analysis of operational learning by the USN at Guadalcanal in 1942. Hone argued that the Navy, with a strong foundation in historical education and doctrine, derived from the inter-war period and First World War, was well situated to adapt to operational disasters such as the Battle of Savo Island, enabling the Navy to reverse-course and ultimately out think the Imperial Japanese Navy. Lieutenant John Miller then read his case-study analysis of training failure, notably looking at the USS Stark, USS Panay, and USS Chesapeake incidents, concluding that readiness can only be achieved by a thorough understanding of not only ship and crew capability, but also, significantly, environmental awareness, the multifaceted elements of which can only be mastered through carefully cultivated experience and preparation, frequently missing in a high-tempo, rapid deployment situation. Wes Hammond then expanded on this subject by observing the importance of mobile basing, stressing the element of fleet logistics, repair and salvage, upon which all other elements are reliant. An important theme uniting these papers, explored in the panel discussion, was the recognition that contemporary naval affairs are defined by questions with historical antecedents. The notion of having, “been here before” was startling, and a clear reminder of the importance of historical investigation prior to framing naval policy.


From left to right: Dr. Nicholas Lambert, Alan Anderson, James Smith and G. H. Bennet

The fifth panel was chaired by the Naval Academy’s own Dr. Nicholas Lambert and featured papers by G. H. Bennet, Alan Anderson and James Smith. This panel took a sweeping look at the Admiralty as a political and educational organization in the 20th century. Plymouth University’s Bennet presented on the unique subject of ship and naval station libraries, a critical component in naval education that at first glance might appear parochial, yet, like many of the papers presented, once explored in detail provided rich insight. Bennet’s research explored the organic knowledge networks that developed aboard ships as crew and officers traded and circulated books, while providing a warning evidenced by the decline of these networks during the transformation of the Royal Navy as budgets tightened in the 20th century. Alan Anderson followed up by examining the seemingly bizarre decision of the Admiralty to promulgate the Declaration of London in 1909, and the implications this would have for Britain’s blockade strategy in 1914. Anderson, who has been critical of Nicholas Lambert’s work on British blockade theory, argued that in fact the Admiralty gained significant concessions from the Declaration, notably including affirmations on the illegality of shipping “absolute contraband” in times of war, while simultaneously shoring up neutral shipping rights, essential components of the Royal Navy’s historical mission as safeguard of the seas. James Smith (of the Seapower Thinker blog) built upon these papers with his criticism of the introduction of the Ministry of Defence by the Earl Mountbatten, who was Chief of the Defence staff for six years, starting in July 1959. Smith argued that Mountbatten’s personal ambitions led him to undermine Britain’s traditional maritime focus, relegating the senior service to equality with the RAF and Army, thus stripping the Navy of its institutional power, which had been carefully built up over hundreds of years.


The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1781

Controversy continued to abound in the two finals panels, both of which I attended out of interest. The first was focused on the Battle of Virginia Capes, 5 September 1781, and second on Japanese naval policy in the 20th century. This was a trip back in time for me, as I had previously written my Masters thesis on the culminating naval battle of the American Revolution, as well as my undergraduate thesis on the only decisive naval battle of the ironclad age, the Battle of Tsushima, 27 May 1905. The first of these panels was known colloquially as the Naval War College panel, featuring papers drawn entirely from that fine institution. Chaired by the College’s John Hattendorf, James Holmes presented the first paper, an insightful strategic analysis of Britain’s naval policy during the Revolutionary War. Holmes argued that Admiralty decision-making ultimately led to the abandonment of the American colonies in favour of protecting the more profitable imperial territories in the Caribbean and India, and seen from the perspective of grand strategy, was reflective of the concept of “antifragility” which helped to explain the Admiralty’s thinking. Holmes provided a broad framework that was then detailed by Jim McIntyre’s paper, examining the egodocuments of Hessian mercenary Johann Ewald, who witnessed the siege of Yorktown. The presentation of Stanley Carpenter flowed naturally from this point, providing a thorough analysis of the Royal Navy’s tactics at the Battle of the Capes itself, with particular attention to the Graves-Hood controversy that emerged. I was pleased to see, eight years after completing my thesis on the subject, Lord Hood receiving the criticism he rightly deserves for failing to bring battle decisively against the Comte de Grasse’s fleet when ordered so by Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves. The discussion after this panel was particularly insightful, with John Hattendorf moderating a lively debate about the vagaries of timing, strategic movements, and the many “mistakes” made, for example, by Lord Cornwallis, who should have known better than to allow his Carolina offensive to become locked up in a position from which the only possible escape was by sea.


Dr. Alessio Patalano presenting on Japan’s Cold War submarine policy, (photo credit: Tim Choi)

The final panel I attended was presented by Andrew Blackley, covering the lessons of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, in particular the Battle of the Yalu, followed by presentations from Masashi Kurarni, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, looking at the Japanese contribution to the Mediterranean in 1917, and finally, by Alessio Patalano, who introduced the Self Defense Force’s submarine policy during the early Cold War. Andrew Blackley argued that Japan’s naval doctrine of rapid-fire close attack proved decisive in two major naval wars, indeed, demonstrating significant flexibility when faced with technical faults or warship losses. Flexibility was further indicated by Masashi Kurarni’s paper, showcasing Japan’s significant international alliance contribution to the anti-submarine war in 1917-1918, providing insight into the under-examined U-boat campaign in the Mediterranean. In keeping with these themes, Alessio Patalano presented the final paper, kindly aware of his duty to move quickly prior to the conference’s conclusion. Patalano observed that Japan’s strategy of core-competency paid dividends when the submarine began to take on a more significant role in Japan’s defence planning. The JMSDF was able to retain capability despite political, budgetary, and strategic transformation on an unprecedented scale.

The conference concluded back at the official symposium hotel where the 2017 Knox Awards Banquet was held, during which Dr. Edward J. Marolda, Commander Paul Stillwell and Dr. Jon T. Sumida were presented with Lifetime Achievement Awards for their stellar and dedicated contributions to naval history.

In conclusion, I was struck by the inspiring collegiality of this professional, academic conference. It serves the historians well to leave their monk-like confines to engage with the free-flow of ideas that historical symposiums inculcate. Between the brilliant and inspiring papers it was a real pleasure to be included in debate that frequently involved world-class subject experts and naval practitioners. In short, this was a transformative experience I highly recommend to anyone considering attending the next Symposium in 2019.



The Hawker Osprey


Osprey Mark IV conversion, photographed at the Aircraft Armament Experimental Establishment, Martlesham Heath. This advanced Osprey had been designed to fulfill Air Ministry Specification 26/35, naval fighter/reconnaissance.

The Hawker Osprey was the naval version of the Hawker Hart/Hind: a two seater light bomber designed by the Air Ministry for Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, to complement the Hawker Nimrod, the naval version of the Hawker Hornet/Fury single seat fighter. Considered the most important RAF acquisition between 1918 and 1936, the Hart and its numerous variants defined the interwar period, becoming the Air Ministry’s single most widely produced aircraft. The Hart and Hornet had been designed to take advantage of the improvements in engine technology that had occurred ten years after the First World War, notably, the newly designed Rolls-Royce Kestrel V-12 inline of 1925.

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force had been formed in April 1924, effectively recreating the carrier wing of the Royal Naval Air Service, as it had existed at the time of its dissolution, six years prior, in April 1918. Under the new compromise, the Admiralty would control the FAA operationally, with the Navy and Royal Marines providing the majority of pilots, as well as all observers, gunners and wireless operators, and the Admiralty delivering its aircraft requirements to the Air Ministry.[i] In October 1924, the FAA was composed of 18 Flights, totaling 128 aircraft: Blackburn Blackburns (torpedo bomber), Avro Bisons (bomber/spotter) and Fairey Flycatchers (fighter), in addition to seaplanes.[ii] Although the wartime giant Sopwith corporation had gone under in the 1920s, the legacy of the 1 ½ Strutter ultimately lived on in the form of the Osprey.


Wing Commander Richard Bell Davies takes off from HMS Argus in his Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter in October 1918. The Hawker Osprey filled the same role, functioning as a general purpose, two seat, carrier scout-bomber.


The single seat Fairey Flycatcher fighter, seen here fitted with floats at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, Felixstowe.


The Avro Bison, a four man gunfire spotter and bomber, replaced by the Osprey in the 1930s.


Restored Hawker Demon today.

The Hart was the fighter-bomber variant of the two seater Demon, itself a modified Hornet/Fury/Nimrod, which, for the Hart and Osprey, effectively meant exchanging the second Vickers gun in the fighter, for the bombsight and gear of the light-bomber. Indeed, the Hart had been designed to fill the role of Single-Engined Day Bomber (SEDB), Specification 12/26, for which it competed against the Avro Antelope and Fairey Fox II in 1928.[iii] This was the year that the Fleet Air Arm was due to receive new aircraft, First Sea Lord David Beatty having delayed the upgrades from the 1926-27 Naval Estimate for reasons of economy.[iv] The Hawker line would go on, in 1933, to replace the Flycatcher fighter with the Hawker Nimrod, the naval version of the twin Vickers gunned Fury single-seater. The Hawker Horsley had also been adopted for the 1928 estimate as a torpedo bomber, a role likewise considered for Hawker Harrier as per Specification 23/25 in February 1927.[v]


The Hawker Hart prototype, showing the Osprey variants- with folding wings (top right) and floats (bottom left). The Osprey had been designed to fulfill the RAF’s 21/34 Specification for a fleet spotter and reconnaissance aircraft.


Hawker Harts being manufactured at the Hawker facility, Kingston, (top) and by Vickers Ltd., by sub-contract.


Late model Rolls-Royce Kestrel XVI, the 21-litre 1,295 cu V12 water-cooled inline was first developed as an Air Ministry project to replicate the single-block architecture of the  18-litre American D-12 Curtiss during 1925-6. Kestrel variants could generate between 500 (IB model) and 600 hp (V model), and as much as 750 horsepower in the supercharged Peregrine derivative. This was the direct predecessor of the legendary 27-litre 1,650 cu (1,100 hp) P.V.12 (Merlin), utilized in the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire and North American Mustang.


The Hart/Osprey was equipped with a Mk. III Lewis gun and a single .303 Mk. II Vickers gun with C. C. synchronizing gear, which allowed the machine gun to be fired directly through the aircraft propeller. From The Armament of British Aircraft 1909 – 1939, by H. F. King, p. 235.

hart mg.jpg

Firing the Hart’s Vickers gun.


The Hawker style Scarff ring for the observer’s Lewis gun.


Part of the naval adaptations, other than folding wings and floats in the seaplane conversion, was the added Kiddle-Lux floatation bags attached to the upper plane wings.


Line drawing of Hawker Hart by James Goulding, from Francis Mason’s Profile Publications volume 57.


Two seater Hawker Demon with Osprey seaplane. The Demon was a two seat fighter variant of the Hart/Fury designed for the RAF. Note the seemingly interchangeable design.


Squadron of Demon biplanes.

The Ospreys were first introduced to Flights No. 404 and 409 in November 1932, and No. 407 (seaplane) Flight had its Fairey IIIFs replaced by Ospreys for work with the cruisers of the Home Fleet. Ospreys also served in Flights 403, 406, 407, 443, 444, and 447. The Ospreys then joined Squadrons 800, 801, 802 and 803 when the FAA squadrons were re-formed in 1933.[x] Eventually the Squadrons were systematized, so that fighters (Nimrods) filled the 800s, FSR (Ospreys) the 810s and TSR (Horsleys) the 820s, each aircraft squadron colour-coded to the ship it was aboard: red for Courageous, yellow for Glorious, green for Eagle and black for Hermes.[xi] At the beginning of 1936 there were three Ospreys aboard Courageous, three aboard Furious, six on Eagle, three on Glorious, while there were another 34 seaplanes and other aircraft aboard 29 Royal Navy warships (144 aircraft in the entire FAA).[xii] Late generation Ospreys were still aboard HMS Ark Royal in 1939, when they were replaced by Blackburn Skua fighter/dive-bombers.


Hawker Ospreys from No. 800 Squadron aboard HMS Ark Royal shortly before September 1939, from British Naval Aviation by Ray Sturtivant, p. 27


Osprey showing folding wings.

In sum, 132 Ospreys served with the Fleet Air Arm, some ending their careers as seaplanes, having worked aboard the cruisers of the Royal Navy, others as trainer aircraft during the Second World War.


Ospreys conducting a night sortie aboard HMS Courageous in 1935, from Hugh Popham, Into Wind, p. 112

Captain Richard Bell Davies, who returned to the Royal Navy after the formation of the RAF, was critical of the Osprey only in terms of its suitability as a seaplane: he believed a slower, more robust and specialized, aircraft was required.[xiii] Indeed, it was during the 1930s, as wartime learning began to be forgotten, and radical technological developments accelerated, that the Admiralty attempted to simplify its requirements, down to essentially two airplanes: Torpedo, Spotter, Reconnaissance (TSR), and fighter/dive-bomber, plus seaplanes, thus losing the pure naval fighter role.[xiv] Whereas technical homogeneity during the disarmament period of the decade following 1918, and Air Ministry control of production, meant that invariably the FAA was going to have to make due with imperfect aircraft, the excellence of the Hawker design meant relative success in terms of roles: single seat fighter (Fairey Flycatcher, then Hawker Nimrod), two seat bomber/spotter/reconnaissance + seaplane (Hawker Osprey), torpedo bomber (Horsley): in effect, Hawker aircraft had become the entire RAF, and indeed most of the FAA, so far as single engine aircraft was concerned. In this regard Sydney Camm had come close to achieving the dream of efficiency sought by defence planners ever since, that is, the production of a single aircraft that, with slight modification, could fulfill every role.


Hawker Osprey seaplane aboard cruiser HMS Enterprise off Palestine in 1936.


Osprey Mk3 launching from HMS Sussex.

Ultimately, the Hart and Osprey, designed ten years after the First World War, were representative of the last decade of inter-service cooperation before the defence upheavals of the 1930s. Although in 1928 the Fleet Air Arm was still controlled by the RAF, responsibly was shared with the Royal Navy through the arrangement that became known as dual control.[xv] This system was maintained, although its existence in terms of utility for the Navy was doomed in so far as the FAA officers, holding RAF rank, were unlikely to advance beyond flight lieutenants: this was at least partly why the Squadrons were formed in 1933, to provide billets for 16 Squadron rank officers.[xvi] The history of the FAA has perhaps never been more controversial than it was during the third decade of the 20th century. Despite the administrative conflict, the second decade had left the FAA in good condition, concluding with the development of the Hawker Hart and Osprey, thus beginning the 1930s on a hopeful note.

Osprey Mark 1.png

Hawker Osprey Mark I flying above HMS Eagle,

Ospreys had been hunted to extinction in Britain by 1916, however, Scandinavian Ospreys recolonized Scotland starting in 1954. A joint English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage project successfully reintroduced the Osprey to the England Midlands, at the beginning of the 21st century, starting at Rutland was reintroduced to England in 2001.



Rutland Osprey #30 (female), seen here in 2015; ZeroF the descendant of Osprey #09 (male), below.


[i] Bill Finnis, The History of the Fleet Air Arm: From Kites to Carriers (Longden Road, Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing Ltd., 2000)., p. 26

[ii] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History (London: Robert Hale Ltd., 1981)., p. 93

[iii] H. F. King, Armament of British Aircraft, 1909-1939 (London: Putnam & Company Limited, 1971)., p. 235

[iv] Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero (New York: Antheneum, 1981)., p. 355

[v] King, Armament of British Aircraft, 1909-1939., p. 229, 232

[vi] Francis Mason, The Hawker Hart, Profile Publications 57 (London: Profile Publications Ltd., n.d.)., p. 3

[vii] Ibid., p. 4

[viii] Kev Darling, Fleet Air Arm Carrier War: The History of British Naval Aviation (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2009)., p. 329 – 30; King, Armament of British Aircraft, 1909-1939., p. 237

[ix] Darling, Fleet Air Arm Carrier War: The History of British Naval Aviation., p. 334

[x] Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History., p. 100

[xi] Ibid., p. 101

[xii] Ibid., p. 102

[xiii] Richard Bell Davies, Sailor in the Air: The Memoirs of the World’s First Carrier Pilot (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Seaforth Publishing, 2008)., p. 224

[xiv] Geoffrey Till, Air Power and the Royal Navy, 1914-1945, A Historical Survey (London: Jane’s Publishing Company, 1979)., p. 103; Hugh Popham, Into Wind (Pitman Press, Bath: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1969)., p. 110

[xv] Bryan Ranft, ed., The Beatty Papers: Volume II, 1916-1927, vol. 2, 2 vols., Navy Records Society 132 (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1993)., p. 228

[xvi] Eric Grove, The Royal Navy since 1815 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)., p. 174


The Development of the Tank in Britain

The Development of the Tank in Britain.


Mark V Tank at Tank Corps Driving School

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The trench deadlock on the Western Front brought to the fore the best technical and theoretical minds in Britain. The various technical arms of Britain’s war establishment pursued radical technological innovations to overcome the “learning curve” of machine warfare. Perhaps no subject outside of the genesis of strategic bombing is as controversial or little understood as the origin of the tank during the First World War.

Castaldi, Fontana, and Nuvolari (2009) in their analysis of tank technology development, define the armoured fighting vehicle as “in most general terms: mobility, firepower and protection”.[1] They defer to Guderian as the doctrinal innovator responsible for the “new tactics based on speed and mobility.”[2]

Castaldi, Fontana, and Nuvolari appreciate technological paradigms as sets of “heuristics” or prevailing descriptions for problem solutions.[3] Modern tank capabilities are understood in terms of their applicability to strategic, operational and tactical situations.


Essentials of Tank Capability.[4]

In material terms, the essence of the problem of the trench deadlock can be expressed by the statistic that 50 infantrymen firing 10 rounds a minute equaled one water-cooled Maxim machine gun at 500 rounds per minute.[5] With the introduction of heavy artillery it likewise became necessary to abandon surprise, as concentrations of artillery required large logistics networks. Furthermore, the heavy artillery bombardments of set-piece battles invariably ruined the landscape. The influence of infantry cannon and direct-fire was reduced in proportion to the expanded role of the heavy artillery.

To return mobility, surprise and direct fire support to the infantry attack, the notion of the armed and armoured vehicle became central. French and British firms independently began to investigate the concept after the initial phase of the war in Autumn of 1914.[6]

The first movements in the direction of an armoured fighting vehicle, naturally enough, came from the fertile mind of H. G. Wells, who had imagined similar machines in 1903.[7]


Holt tractor (75hp) with 8 inch howitzer

The basic principle according to Heinz Guderian, was the Holt Caterpillar: a machine, once armed, capable of crossing the deadly no-man’s land despite echelon machine-gun fire, barb wire and the storm of steel – the artillery barrage. Such a machine would have “the potential to crush obstacles, cross trenches and convey its armament under bullet-proof protection into the very midst of the enemy, where it could annihilate the otherwise almost invulnerable machine-guns, and enable one’s own infantry to pass open ground without incurring intolerable casualties.” [8]

Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, appreciated the problem of deadlock from his usual material perspective. The essence of the problem was the same on land as it was on sea. The problem was protection: men from bullets and ships from torpedoes. “Reduced to its rudiments, it consisted in interposing a thin plate of steel between the side of the ship and the approaching torpedo, or between the body of a man and the approaching bullet.[9] Or, “the Tank was the beginning of the bullet-proof army.”[10]


RNAS Armoured car section entrained, Eastern Front.>

In Churchill’s vision of the new methods, armored cars operated by the Royal Naval Air Service would “protect the advanced bases which our naval aeroplanes might require to use.”[11]

The exploits of Charles Samson during operations at Dunkirk on one of these missions are legendary.[12] However, they were not to be the norm on the Western Front once the trench lines solidified by the end of October 1914 (the Eastern Front is another story). A new machine was required for surmounting the trenches.

Churchill was unambiguous that it was the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) that first embodied the principles that led to the development of the tank: “The armoured car was the child of the air; and the Tank its grandchild.” Churchill also credited the siege howitzer invention of Rear-Admiral Reginald Bacon and the Coventry Ordnance Works, an idea, backed by Field Marshal Lord Kitchener (Minister for War), that would have deployed 15-inch siege howitzers propelled by caterpillar tracks.[13]

 Asked for designs that would cross trenches, Bacon prepared a bridging machine, and Churchill prepared to display the idea to Sir John French and Lord Kitchener.[14] The plan was arranged in November 1914, and was tested by the War Office in May 1915, although the machine was rejected as unsatisfactory.[15] Churchill distinguished these first efforts from the independent efforts of Hankey and Swinton.[16]



Colonel Swinton developed the idea of an armoured fighting vehicle during his reporting as “Eyewitness” a war correspondent for Kitchener.[17] Swinton had been a first hand witness to the utility of armoured warfare as a member of Samson’s RNAS armoured car squadron during the Dunkirk operations.[18] Swinton, who was also assistant secretary to the CID (Committee of Imperial Defence) since 1913, was in close contact with Maurice Hankey, the CID permanent secretary.[19]


The Imperial War Cabinet, May 1917.

Hankey, with other members of the secretariat, is in the back row, third from right. First Sea Lord Jellicoe is second from left, back row, with First Lord Carson to his left. The primaries are seated front, including Lord Milner, DLG, Bonar-Law, Robert Borden, and Jan Smuts>

Hankey wrote a letter to Historian and tank proponent Sir Basil Liddell Hart on 3 April 1948, in which he explained Swinton’s contribution.[20]

Hankey explained that he and Swinton first germinated the idea when they met at the CID on 20 October 1914. There Swinton noted the existence of the Holt tractor and the use that could be made of it to break the deadlock.[21] Hankey and Swinton, aware of the bureaucratic opposition their agenda would encounter, agreed to make three separate avenues of approach: Hankey at the War Office, Swinton with the General Staff and Captain T. G. Tulloch (RA) with technical matters and execution.[22]


Painting of Horatio Kitchener 1911

Guderian relates that Hankey contacted Asquith to follow up on Hankey’s “Boxing Day Memo” (actually dated 28 December 1914). The memo included a proposal for the construction of “large, heavy rollers, themselves bullet proof… with ‘caterpillar’ driving gear… [and] a Maxim gun fitted.”[23]

As Guderian understood the memo, it emphasized the necessity of building “armoured machine-gun carriers with caterpillar tracks.”[24] Guderian critiqued Lord Kitchener for suppressing this early “machine-gun destroyer” initiative.[25]

Indeed, this was the case for Hankey’s approach through the War Office. Although backed by former PM Arthur Balfour (after the May Crisis, First Lord of the Admiralty), and with Asquith showing support, Kitchener detracted from the idea arguing on the case of vulnerability of the tractors to artillery.[26]

Reading Hankey’s December 1914 memo brought Churchill’s mind back around to the machines, and he wrote a letter to Asquith endorsing Hankey’s recommendations.[27]

In that letter, Churchill stated that in December 1914 he had ordered “the Naval Air Service” (RNAS) to build twenty “shields on wheels” for experimental purposes.[28]

Churchill stated that Asquith showed the letter to Kitchener, who received it favourably, but placed further investigation under the responsibility of the Department of the Master General of the Ordnance, which, already dealing with a munitions shortage (the Shell Crisis) failed to move forward with the project.[29]

Feeling that things were not progressing as required, Churchill, on 19 January 1915, instructed Murray Sueter, Director Admiralty Air Department (Churchill calls this the “Air Division”) and chief of the RNAS, to “make certain experiments” with machines designed for defeating trench works.[30]

 Sueter, along with his crack armoured car and airplane engineers went to work on the problem. Unfortunately for Sueter, he never received the recognition he thought deserving and when he took the matter directly to King George V, was court martialed by the Admiralty.[31]


Tank designers beside “Mother” at Burton Park, Lincoln. Included are Hetherington, Wilson and Tritton.>

Churchill met with Major Hetherington, who was working for Sueter as a member of one of the RNAS Armoured Car Squadrons. In conversation with Churchill on 17 February, Hetherington proposed the construction of “land battleships” on a large scale.[32] Churchill forwarded these proposals to First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher, and on 20 February formed the Landship Committee, president Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, the Chief Constructor of the Navy.[33] Churchill’s secret committee, without correspondence with the War Office, produced two variants of machines, one wheeled the other caterpillar driven, the latter which Churchill ordered into production on 26 March 1915.[34]

At the behest of Hankey, the War Office had actually built and tested a small Holt tractor type, in February and March 1915, as related by Chuchill, although it failed to meet expectations.[35]

After the fallout of the May Crisis (collapse of the Fisher-Churchill regime over the Dardanelles campaign), the Landship Committee faced the financial chopping block, and Churchill claims that his personal appeal to Balfour, the incoming First Lord of the Admiralty (as of 25 May 1915) saved the project- trimmed down to a single machine. This single machine eventually became “Mother” which was tested at Lincoln in January and February 1916.[36]

Meanwhile, in June 1915 Swinton brought his proposal to the attention of Field Marshal Sir John French, who passed it to the War Office.[37] It can be seen then that Hankey’s policy of multiple avenues of approach was steadily building pressure.

A more complex machine was put to trial by the Landship Committee in September 1915. This was the “No 1 Lincoln Machine” – known as “Little Willie” after Walter Wilson – which was laid down on 11 August 1915.[38]


“Little Willie” the September 1915 trial machine.

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Pressured by Sir John French to investigate Swinton’s proposals, Swinton chaired the two pivotal interdepartmental conferences on 28 August and 24 December, 1915, in which the separate avenues of the Admiralty’s Landship committee and the War Office approach were united.[39] The latter meeting concluded with the placing of an order for fifty machines, which, to ensure secrecy, Swinton coined as “tanks”.[40]

Swinton, who had been at the “Little Willie” trial in September 1915 was in close liaison with the machine’s designers, Sir William Tritton and Walter Wilson. Together they worked up a scheme for a larger machine which was approved for construction by the Landship Committee meeting of 29 September 1915.[41]


“Mother” the prototype tank on trials in January 1916.>

Hankey and Swinton continued to work closely, and there was speculation that Swinton was being groomed to succeed Hankey as permanent secretary. In February 1916 the new machines were tested. Shortly afterwards, the Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps was formed, later renamed the Tank Corps in 1917.[42]

“Mother” underwent trials in February 1916 with Kitchener, Balfour and David Lloyd George in attendance. Kitchener apparently held to his position that these new machines would be vulnerable to enemy artillery.[43]

Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, was enthusiastic about the machine’s potential, and maneuvered to have the Landship Committee absorbed into his ministry.[44] From there, Lloyd George ordered 100 of the new model, now known as the “Tank Mark I”.[45] The order was shortly increased to 150 machines. The tank, brainchild of the conspiratorial Swinton-Hankey workgroup, grandchild of the Churchill-Sueter-Samson triumvirate, had come of age.


Tank F-10 and soldiers of the “Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps” at Rollencourt Tank Park (“Tankodrome” 30 June 1917.>

[1] Carolina Castaldi, Roberto Fontana, and Alessandro Nuvolari, “‘Chariots of Fire’: The Evolution of Tank Technology, 1915-1945,” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 19, no. 4 (2009): 546–66. p. 546

[2] Ibid. p. 547

[3] Ibid. p. 547

[4] Ibid. p. 553

[5] Spencer Tucker, Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact, Weapons and Warfare Series 17 (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, Inc., 2004). p. 6

[6] Ibid. p. 10

[7] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918, Abridged and Revised Edition (New York: Free Press, 2005). p. 309

[8] Heinz Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare, trans. Christopher Duffy (London: Cassell, 1999). p. 48

[9] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 303

[10] Ibid. p. 304

[11] Ibid. p. 304

[12] Charles Rumney Samson, Fights and Flights (Nashville: The Battery Press, 1930). p. 12 et seq.

[13] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 305 & Tucker, Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. p. 11

[14] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 305

[15] Ibid. p. 305

[16] Ibid. p. 306

[17] Tucker, Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. p. 12

[18] Roger Ford, The World’s Great Tanks: From 1916 to the Present Day (Hong Kong: Brown Books, 1997). p. 7

[19] H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison, eds., “Swinton, Sir Ernest Dunlop,” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, September 23, 2004),

[20] Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, vol. Volume I: 1877–1918, 3 vols. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1970). p. 147

[21] Ibid. p. 147

[22] Ibid. p. 147

[23] Ibid. p. 148

[24] Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare. p. 48

[25] Ibid. p. 48

[26] Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets. p. 147

[27] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 306, Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets. p. 148

[28] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 306-7

[29] Ibid. p. 307

[30] Ibid. p. 307

[31] ADM 178/29

[32] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 308

[33] Ibid. p. 308

[34] Ibid. p. 309

[35] Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare. p. 49

[36] Churchill, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. p. 310

[37] Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare. p. 49

[38] Ford, The World’s Great Tanks: From 1916 to the Present Day. p. 9

[39] Tucker, Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. p. 14

[40] Matthew and Harrison, “Swinton, Sir Ernest Dunlop.”

[41] Ford, The World’s Great Tanks: From 1916 to the Present Day. p. 9

[42] Matthew and Harrison, “Swinton, Sir Ernest Dunlop.”

[43] Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare. p. 50

[44] Ford, The World’s Great Tanks: From 1916 to the Present Day. p. 10

[45] Ibid. p. 10