The bolt from the blue and the knock-out blow

In his comment on my previous post, Alex mentions the "bolt from the blue" strategy as possibly related to the knock-out blow that is my current obsession (and he's right, in my opinion). My reply started to get long, so I decided to turn it into a post instead ...

In Edwardian debates about the defence of the UK, the "bolt from the blue" school of naval strategy believed that the German navy could temporarily gain local superiority and throw a few hundred thousand soldiers ashore in Norfolk or somewhere, and Britain's puny army would be no match for those efficient Prussians. (Read: we need conscription!) It was opposed by the "blue water" school who argued that a strong Royal Navy would be sufficient to stop the Germans from getting ashore in any numbers. (Read: we need more dreadnoughts!) Of course, the dramatic and frightening bolt from the blue was the one favoured by Edwardian war-scare novelists like le Queux and Childers.See A.J.A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

There's certainly some similarity between the bolt from the blue and the knock-out blow, though how much the one influenced the other is difficult to say. Both were surprise attacks, and both evaded existing defences (the Royal Navy and the North Sea/English Channel). And both struck directly at the heart of Empire, rather than fighting the war at a safe distance, in Europe or the edges of empire. I think the major difference is that the bolt from the blue was still a military strategy: a way for Germany to bring its overwhelming military superiority to bear on the British army, defeat it and force Britain to surrender.I should emphasise that it wasn't the Germans themselves who thought this, by and large: these were basically unwarranted British fears about what Germany was planning or at least was capable of. But the knock-out blow was, generally speaking, aimed at civilians: it was a way of using British civilians themselves to force the government to surrender, directly or indirectly.In the pre-1914 period, there was some suggestion that strategic bombing would be best employed to disrupt enemy mobilisation, but that wasn't seen as a potentially war-winning strategy, merely a helpful one. (In that sense, the closest comparison might be a guerre de course like the U-boat campaigns in the World Wars.) After the First World War, the knock-out blow replaced the bolt from the blue as the scaremonger's nightmare of choice ...

But now I'm getting ahead of myself!

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6 thoughts on “The bolt from the blue and the knock-out blow

  1. Chris Williams

    We could go back andf back, but what about the reaction (if any) in the UK to the jeune ecole inside the French navy in the C19th?

    And what about the knock-out blow delivered via the submarine? ObSF here is _The Raid of Le Vengeur_, which IIRC was re-printed in one of the collections that Michael Moorcock edited, either _Before Armageddon_ or _England Invaded_.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    My impression is that submarines were generally not thought of in the context of a guerre de course, but as equalizers to be used against battleships and the like. Certainly in "The raid of Le Vengeur", the sub is used to sink a British cruiser. So subs were just another battlefield weapon, not a way of getting at the soft civilian underbelly.

    As for courses de guerre more generally (like the jeune ecole), as I said I think they are related to the knock-out blow; I would say they quantitatively different (much slower, taking months or years rather than days or weeks) as well as qualitatively different (not attacking civilians directly). These possibly help explain why after WWI, attention was focused on the threat from the bomber rather than the submarine ... but I still find that curious, given 1917. Seems like something they forgot to remember!

  3. Chris Williams

    It is weird, isn't it? Both problems were solved by 1918: the former by an air defence system, the latter by convoys. I suppose it's a case of things only mattering if they happen in (or in this case over) London. The submarine war was a long way away, and the food never actually ran out. I blame the RAF, as usual, for fixating on the knock-out blow.

    You're right about Le Vengeur - on the other hand, any new way to defeat the Channel Fleet automatically opens the country up to the Battle of Dorking.

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author

    I wonder if admirals and navalists weren't also partly responsible ... destroyers being so much less glamorous than battleships. But I don't know much about naval propaganda between the wars, so that may be unfair.

  5. Destroyers less glamorous than battleships? Tell that to von Hipper's young men with their torpedo beards. Certainly submarines (and also destroyers/torpedo boats and mines) were seen as part of a naval "bolt from the blue/bolt from the grey" scenario - the dominant idea being that the Grand Fleet would be drawn into some kind of hellish ambush as the invaders sailed.

    This actually had some consequences for real strategy; the Churchill/Fisher policy of distant blockade with the big navy at Scapa Flow and a mass of destroyers and subs at Harwich and in the Dover Strait was essentially a measure of security against it.

  6. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Sure, but I was talking about the post-war British navy, not the pre-war German one. I suspect that British destroyers were much more likely to be used for dull (but vital) convoy work than dashing torpedo attacks against the enemy battlefleet!

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