Light and sound

One of the mysteries of Britain's fear of the bomber is why it wasn't a fear of the submarine instead. In the First World War Germany attacked Britain directly by air and indirectly by sea, but only the submarine blockade came anywhere close to knocking Britain out. The same was true of the Second World War, though the difference was less, as was the danger. Yet between the wars, it was the air menace which preoccupied the public mind, almost to the exclusion of the sea menace. I came across an article today which, although it doesn't directly address this question, does shed some light on it from the naval point of view: Joseph P. Maiolo, 'Deception and intelligence failure: Anglo-German preparations for U-boat warfare in the 1930s', Journal of Strategic Studies 22 (1999), 55-76.

The simple answer is the British development, mostly after 1918, of ASDIC. This is more familiar to us today as sonar, and in simple terms worked by sending out pulses of sound through the water and listening for the echoes as they reflect off submarine hulls. It promised much greater effectiveness than the passive hydrophones used up until then. The Royal Navy was understandably quite pleased with this and worked on trying to perfect it for operational use, albeit with limited success. What emerges from Maiolo's account is the way in which the Admiralty tried to manage the public flow of information about ASDIC for both domestic and foreign consumption. The point of this was to make foreign powers doubt the usefulness of submarines and so, hopefully, not build them.

ASDIC's existence was a secret for most of the 1920s, for example, but from 1929 the term itself was allowed to circulate publicly, even if not exactly publicised. In mid-1932, the British press reported that the Admiralty was experimenting with a submarine-detecting apparatus that 'spelled the doom of the submarine as an engine of warfare' (59). In 1936, the parliamentary secretary for the Admiralty, Lord Stanley, told the House of Commons that

I hope I am not here betraying any very great naval secret, but it is a fact that we have to-day an almost fool-proof and efficient anti-submarine device. I hope it does not reveal any secret to say that it operates on the system of the reflector ray ... (62)

Such claims were met with some scepticism by naval experts, both in Britain and in Germany, and according to Maiolo the Admiralty learned from this that vague statements placed in the press were not enough: some practical demonstration of ASDIC's power was needed. The best chance for this came during the Spanish Civil War, when ships carrying arms to Republican ports were attacked by 'pirate' (i.e. Italian) submarines. British destroyers came under attack twice, but the Navy very publicly fluffed their chance and didn't manage to sink anything. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper, even had to lie to Parliament, claiming that HMS Basilisk had failed to destroy its target because it turned out that there was nothing there at all; and that furthermore ASDIC wasn't responsible for this false detection either, somebody thought they saw torpedo tracks. Thus the myth of ASDIC's invincibility was preserved. Not that the German navy quite bought this, but it did undervalue submarine warfare (as opposed to surface raiding), and Maiolo concludes that the 'German expectation of Britain's anti-submarine defences matched the false image cultivated by the Admiralty long before the outbreak of World War II' (71).

Maiolo also talks about press scares about the submarine menace. In April-May 1935,

[...] Hector C. Bywater, the naval correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, revealed 'German naval secrets' to his readers, which included sinister plans for a new generation of advanced U-boats. Imaginations imprinted with U-boat crisis of 1917 were confronted with sensational newspaper headlines that read 'Germany's New Submarines - Experiment in Mass Production -- Avoiding Wartime Failure' [...] Bywater and other journalists continued to write sensational stories about Nazi Germany's new generation of lethal U-boats. In September 1936, for instance, under the headline 'How Science May Reinforce a Sinister Weapon', Bywater described how German engineers, 'after years of research and experiment', had foiled contemporary anti-submarine defences by developing a single-plant 'which is said to drive a submarine with equal facility on the surface and on the water'. In late 1936, the Morning Post plastered London with three feet by two feet press headline posters that read 'New German Submarines Designed for Commerce Destruction - Powerful Hydrophones for Locating Shipping'. (61)

The need to allay such fears about submarines was another reason for the exaggerated statements about the effectiveness of ASDIC.

All of this has both parallels with and divergences from the air defence situation. Take some of the parallels first. The most obvious, and least important, one is that ASDIC and RDF (sonar and radar) are physically analogous systems, working on the same principle of active detection via reflected waves (the one via sound, the other via radio). Both presented highly technological challenges to British scientists and engineers and both were kept secret while under development. (RDF was not revealed to the public until 1941.) More interestingly -- at least for me -- press scare campaigns about both submarines and bombers, and what they might do to civilians, increased public interest and participation in otherwise rarefied debates about defence. As part of this process, the war in Spain was crucial in dramatising the threats from both the sea and from the air, and also in providing information about the effectiveness of possible defences against them. But so too was the experience of the First World War in proving the reality of the threats in the first place, with 1917 being a key year in both cases (due to the unrestricted U-boat campaign and the Gotha raids).

As to the differences, thanks to physics ASDIC and RDF were used very differently. Sound attenuates very rapidly under water and so could only be used to detect very nearby submarines. Thus ASDIC was more like AI than CH. So too, ships move much more slowly than aeroplanes and so only local forces could be used to counterattack: so no anti-submarine equivalent of Fighter Command. As for the press scares, without neglecting the efforts of Bywater et al. I think these were an order of magnitude less intense for submarines than for bombers. There just wasn't the same level of concern -- which of course was my original point (though I was interested to find that there was some concern). The question then is (still) why?

One possibility is that the Admiralty's strategy of dropping hints about ASDIC in Parliament and in the press was quite effective. Certainly I'm not aware of anything similar from the Air Ministry and RDF. This may be because it was developed about fifteen years later than ASDIC -- the mid-1930s, becoming operational in 1939 -- at a time when the foreign situation was already darkening: there just wasn't the time to leisurely leak reassuring news about how well-protected Britain was from the air. Another reason may have been that bragging about air defence would undermine the Air Ministry's arguments for a large bomber force ('the only defence is in offence'). The Admiralty likewise wanted battleships rather than destroyers, but there was no way to make battleships into a defence against destroyers.

Another possibility is the immediacy of bombing, as compared with the slow strangulation of blockade. Aeroplanes were a direct threat to civilians, submarines only an indirect one. In terms of making the flesh of newspaper readers creep, there was no contest. Similarly, even though the U-boats in 1917 were far more dangerous to Britain than the Gothas, they didn't actually kill any civilians (aside from merchant seamen). Conversely, the relatively large-scale nature of submarine warfare (relatively continuous attacks, many ships sunks) in the First World War meant that the effectiveness of countermeasures, especially convoying, could be fairly accurately gauged (ie by the rise or fall in tonnage sunk), whereas bombing was on a small scale (days or weeks between raids, damage more dependent on chance) and misinterpretation far more likely: the difference between large-number and small-number statistics.

Ultimately, the relative lack of fear of the submarine is still a bit of a puzzle to me. But that there was more fear than I had realised but that also more official effort was put into assuaging those fears does make it less mysterious.

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28 thoughts on “Light and sound

  1. Erik Lund

    There's a great book on ASDIC development that goes into pretty solid detail about the interwar era, Willem Hackmann's _Seek and Strike_. Looking for it on Amazon turned up a book being advertised as a successor, though, so maybe it's tons better.
    At least Hackmann's account of the rapid transition from one generation of ASDIC to the next in the interwar period helps put all this into context. If the _current_ ASDIC wasn't infallible, maybe next week's would be. What he doesn't talk about is that the fishing fleet had been using echolocators to chase herring for years by 1939, so there ought to have been a large stock of practical knowledge out there in the working world about the big and confusing real world of underwater acoustics.

    And on the subject of panics, I think if you'll track down a run of _Fairplay_, you will see a burgeoning submarine panic in the early months of 1939. (That alleged manipulation of the press may have delayed the appearance of concerns first sparked around Munich, too.) The long and the short of it is that much of the huge investment in ASW forces that bulked up the numbers of the RN escort force in the early war began in the spring. It's been said that Conservative backbenchers, many of whom were shipowners, pushed hard for this.

    It's also said that the official start of the "Hunt" class, which was already a 20 ship+plus programme in the Naval Estimates and had burgeoned to 73 ships by the time war was declared, was delayed until after December by the fact that they were illegal under the London Treaty.

  2. Erik Lund

    Of course my comments don't really go to Brett's focus. Here's my second thoughts on "submarine panics" versus "air panics." It seems to me that they are very different things. An air panic is a generalised feature of modernity. Aeroplanes are here, and, short of abolishing them, there's nought to do but abolish cities.
    And since that seems to be H. G. Wells' agenda.... Seriously, we could have a nice discussion here about what the apocalypse is really all about. (I tend to think of it as less a legitimate fear of the future than as a longing for total transformation. The apocalypse is just coming of age. But that's just me.)
    Submarines, on the contrary, theaten us in a very contextually-bound way. That thought comes out of my visualising the likely response to articulating the threat: "they're going to sink all our food!"

    Because the response is not likely to be "oh noes." More likely, it's going to be along the lines of, "well, we wouldn't need to import food if there was land reform/we just got off the landlord's back/there was proper scientific agriculture here in England/we just ate the poor folk's babies."
    That is, an attempt to launch a proper moral panic would just lead to a political discussion. I guess you could get somewhere with the whole "the Royal Navy would be destroyed" thing, but the English press held those as regular alternate Tuesday crossover events, anyway.

  3. Interesting post Brett. "Aeroplanes were a direct threat to civilians, submarines only an indirect one." sums it up I feel, and we have a case of 'it could be me bombed' while, as Erik's put, the loss of dinner - or even all dinners doesn't have the same impact*.

    Bombers, however erroneously read were an apparent direct threat, and unless you had family in the Merchant Marine, subs a very indirect one that 'those in charge' were, as you say, looking after for us.

    Then there's the very human over-reaction to a direct threat of death by bombing as against the usual inertia (boiled frog principle anyone?) of death by starvation.

    Eric's post is most illuminating. However - "What he doesn't talk about is that the fishing fleet had been using echolocators to chase herring for years by 1939, so there ought to have been a large stock of practical knowledge out there in the working world" Go on! The grey funnel line talk to (or or more critically listen to) a bunch of smelly working class fishermen? Even during the war there was a mutual lack of respect, some reasonably founded on different shortcomings, until they were forced to work together.

    *On this tack, Mrs JDK was watching a video of chef Jamie Oliver (for work, as it happens) presenting to some Americans that the worry of the risk of homicide as against the certainty of illness and death due to poor diet shows our lack of sophisticated risk assessment.

  4. Chirstopher

    The assumption was made that because ASDIC could detect submarines the problem was dealt with. Whilst it is true that even damage would render a submarine unusable which is the reason that there were only two attacks on British destroyers. The second submarine was so knocked about that further attacks were forbidden. Because there is a solution people can relax and it fits in with the Royal Navy's aggressive strategy (destroyer captains rushing around and proactively seeking the opposition). Weaknesses in the system were ignored and the need for passive defence and other technologies minimised. JDK is right about talking to fishermen, the Royal Navy didn't do that sort of thing. However, there is a difference between locating a shoal of fish and a submarine and one mustn't read too much into this. ASDIC operators needed to be trained to recognise the different signals.
    Despite being a seafaring nation many people in Britain didn't actually understand and couldn't understand the nature of sea warfare. However, aviation was easier to understand and newer. It was easier to imagine a single dramatic destruction of a city especially as it had never happened before. So the focus was on bombing and because it was sensational, the press went along with it as well.

  5. Post author


    Is Fairplay the shipping newspaper? A submarine panic there would be an entirely different thing to one in the national press. That goes double for early 1939, as opposed to (say) early 1935. War pretty clearly was near, and shipowners were bound to be nervous.

    That is, an attempt to launch a proper moral panic would just lead to a political discussion.

    But isn't that the point of a moral panic? Set the national discourse running in the grooves you lay down in the hope of forcing political change. Nor were the ends of sub panics and bomber panics necessarily mutually exclusive: both could and did lead in the direction of back-to-the-land fantasies (get rid of the cities, as you say). And submarine blockades were just as much the result of modernity as knock-out blows: if it hadn't been for 19th century refrigeration, railways and free trade Britain wouldn't have been so highly urbanised and dependent on food imports, and thus so vulnerable to starvation. I think it's really (as you suggest and JDK and Christopher explore further) that the knock-out blow was so much more spectacular and immediate than submarine blockade.

    On apocalypse as desire, there's definitely a lot of that, cozy catastrophes and so on. Wells himself in The Shape of Things to Come for one.

  6. "Aeroplanes were a direct threat to civilians, submarines only an indirect one."

    While I agree with this for the pre-war period, but i wonder if in the post-war years does this change not change. The emergence of nuclear weapons and ICBM delivery system based around the technology of the submarine a much more direct and deadly threat. Was that not a fear that people were aware during the Cold War? The emergence of the strategic nuclear triad, certainly in the US and USSR, poses an immediate threat to the population. Was this reported in the the press? I suppose though we are moving from something that is not just a 'Submarine Panic' but a 'Nuclear Panic'

  7. Neil Datson

    An interesting post with some interesting comments, and of which I could say a good deal. As I need to do some work, for the moment at least I'll confine myself to two quickies.

    1 Christopher's observation: 'Despite being a seafaring nation many people in Britain didn't actually understand and couldn't understand the nature of sea warfare.' How true, how very true. So greatly reinforced this year by all the 70 years on from the Battle of Britain publicity. No denigration of the fighter boys intended, but the preposterous myth that it prevented the Germans from invading only seems to grow stronger and stronger. It really should have been nailed many years ago.

    2 Whenever discussing the submarine menace and the subsequent Battle of the Atlantic never forget two contextual points. In WWI the U-boats were comprehensively defeated without asdic. Secondly, the RN's planning was naturally predicated on France holding out. The Battle of the Atlantic would have been won far more easily if Donitz hadn't had use of the Biscay ports.

  8. Post author


    That's true, though I do wonder how aware people were generally of the threat of sub-launched nukes? Maybe in Britain a bit more because they knew (in the later Cold War anyway) that their own nuclear deterrent was sub-based. But thinking back on nuclear paranoia movies, submarines don't feature all that prominently except for Bond-type thrillers and post-Cold War submarine movies like Crimson Tide. Ironically of course SLBMs were and are a much greater threat to the US than a few IRBMs in Cuba ever were ...


    Both very true.

  9. I'd presume it was because we'd dealt with unrestricted submarine warfare before. Mind you, didn't WSC say (after the fact) that the only thing that really scared him was the U-boat threat?

  10. Erik Lund

    On a moral panic in _Fairplay_, you're quite right, Brett. Of course, you are interested in moral panics that play out in national culture, whereas I'm interested in the decision-making process that escalated the order for the "Hunts" from 20 to 70 units.

    So that said, I still don't think that a submarine panic is going to go to the same place as a knockout blow panic. The submarine thing leads to a discussion about the need for national autarky and a good old fashioned outbreak of xenophobia, while typically air panics lead to the spectre of city mobs maddened by bombing and overthrowing civilisation. Drilling down, I see one as being about building social solidarity, the other as an expression of alienation... does that make any sense?

    And with nuclear submarines, isn't the dominant image one of The Last Submarine, the self-contained world gliding through the empty seas of a desolate world? Submarines don't seem to get to play agents of the apocalypse so much as victims of it. Weird, hunh?

  11. Neil Datson

    Interesting how this harks back to the superweapon and imagination posts Brett put up a few months ago. Asdic strikes me as just about the clearest example of a definite technological lead established by one country over the others in the inter-war period. Of course it wasn't flawless, and peace time trials were unrealistic, but as far as I'm aware no other country had anything to compare with it even as late as 1940, when the British gave it to the US as part of the lend-lease deal. That's pretty remarkable for a system that owed its genesis to a WWI committee.

    However, presuming that is broadly true, it's striking to reflect on how the British largely frightened themselves into WWII, not only with the bomber in general, but also with a string of scare stories about German technological superiority. Especially, of course, scares about the technological superiority of German aircraft. Brett mentions the Morning Post's promotion of some kind of 'super U-boat'. That, I take it, was pretty much an isolated example? Which in itself is rather weird, because submarines are less visible than aircraft and so intrinsically more psychologically threatening.

    Erik, on the specific point of the extra Hunt's, I didn't know that they were ordered before the outbreak, but surely by the time it actually happened even the most ostrichesque of British parliamentarians and commentators could see that war was on its way? What seems to me strange is not what preparations were made in the spring and summer of 1939, but the preparations that weren't made in 1936-38.

  12. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    The answer as to why extra Hunts weren't ordered earlier was the treasury and the policy of appeasement. This also applies to other armaments and as Kershaw has demonstrated ('Making Friends with Hitler') very little was known about the nature of the German regime. It was also felt that the Italians could be friends and so it was not felt productive to enter into an arms race. There was some movement - it takes a long time to design and build a ship and also to create and activate extra squadrons. One can liken the orthodox position to the frog in a gradually heating up pan - they don't know they are in trouble until it is almost too late.

  13. Neil Datson

    Absolutely, Christopher A-L. Like a frog in a pan, a good analogy. But where I'm coming from is to wonder how and why the treasury/appeasement line could have held such sway over the government for so long. Far more than the government in fact, for it was almost the whole British governing and commentating class mindset. Chamberlain was neatly blamed for appeasement ('Guilty Men' etc) but, in that sense he was only the scapegoat. I can't help but suspect that there was a collective underlying mindset in Britain in the 1930s that was the almost inevitable product of national (relative) decline. Having such a vast empire without the capability to defend it led to an obsession with arms control and international government and such airy ideas.

    (Okay, here's a thought. Sometime in the next fifty years the USA's relative decline will start to pinch, and pinch hard. Will the USA's foreign policy then become almost embarassingly emollient?)

    (Followers of Airminded may be interested in the current edition of Radio 4's 'Head to Head', about the debate between A J P Taylor and H R Trevor-Roper on the origins of WWII. It's available until next Tues.)

  14. I would like to point out I mentioned the boiled frog principle in my first reply; for more detail here's a handy view:

    Like many of these easy aphorisms, or thought experiments, it's also not actually true or likely. More Schrodinger than grenouille bouillie.

    Another 'unlikely but true' British rearming story relating to Christopher's comment re- Italian intentions was the British order for a batch of Reggiane Re 2000s for the RAF. They could have been the narrow margin in the Battle of Britain. Or not.

    I'm not yet convinced by any of the nuclear sub theories advanced - but nor do I have one of my own! That said, we shouldn't forget (a caveat to Brett's comment) that Britain's nuclear deterrent was sub based only for part of the cold war. The V Bombers were Britain's deterrent before it passed to the RN.

  15. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Sorry JDK - I missed your earlier reference.

    It's true a lot of people bought into appeasement but Chamberlain was one of its major proponents and backed it quite ferociously. Chamberlain doesn't actually come across as a very perceptive person - compared say to Lord Halifax. However, it would be correct to say that he deserved a lot of opprobrium that he received though perhaps not from some of the people who heaped it on him.
    There was a strong anti-war strain in Britain after the First World War which undoubtedly was used by treasury officials to push for arms reduction. Treasury policy was also quite conservative and unimaginative and the department was also the most powerful in the British government. The empire was expensive to run and as Neil says in decline. Air control in the hinterland of empire was born of financial considerations.
    One also has to remember the modernity of aviation in comparison with other technologies. The submarine was a known entity and presumably could be dealt with successfully. The airplane wasn't and could be talked about in the wildest terms with a fair degree of credibility. That is what would supply the scare part.

  16. No problem, Christopher, I just hate anyone missing it when I think I'm being clever. :)

    The submarine was a known entity and presumably could be dealt with successfully. The airplane wasn't and could be talked about in the wildest terms with a fair degree of credibility. That is what would supply the scare part.
    That's an interesting take, and perhaps is part of the answer?

    Likewise politically aviation didn't 'belong' to a military-political British establishment in the same way that the RN did - and had done (according to the RN version) since time immemorial.

  17. Neil Datson

    JDK, sorry, I too missed the slippery little bugger the first time!

    Any debate over the personal importance of Chamberlain against the importance of national decline is ultimately a question of 'cabbages or kings.' (At least that's what it was called when I was at school, rather a while ago now.) In the final analysis, I incline to count up the cabbages.

    The thing that strikes me now about Appeasement is that it would have been a far more credible policy had it been paired with re-armament.

    As technologies, the submarine and aeroplane are surely of almost exactly equal antiquity? Probably the difference between them, in the sense of their impact on the popular consciousness, is that the improvements in aeroplanes are more visible. Faster and larger bombers will make a far stronger impression on the man on the Clapham omnibus than deeper diving and longer range submarines.

  18. Especially in the current climate it feels a little wrong to be defending the Treasury, but its policy has been somewhat rehabilitated from the 1970s onwards, when the relevant files were released at the PRO.

    There are a number of linked arguments, which go something like: The UK expected to fight another protracted war; as such, maintaining the country's financial resources was as important as having strong military forces, as these would allow the country to fight for a prolonged period, and would have a deterrent effect on any aggressor, as the UK would be able to outlast them in any conflict.

    Translated into military strategy, the idea (or hope?) was that the Royal Navy could blockade Germany whilst the RAF bombed it, and the UK could stand back and watch the enemy economy collapse. The minor flaw with this plan was that the Nazi regime was not deterred by it, as Hitler was gambling on a short war (Tooze's Wages of Destruction has more on this IIRC).

    George Peden argued that once the need for rearmament became clear in the mid-1930s the Treasury actually supported the programme as strongly as any other department; the limits it set on spending could not have been easily exceeded without causing inflation and economic instablility, thereby undermining the economic warfare side of government policy.

    The final argument is simply that the British Empire was over-stretched from the late 1920s on; given the economic situation of the Great Depression, the UK could not afford to deter threats from Japan, Italy, and Germany at the same time.

  19. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    The submarine was the older technology. The first reliable accounts seem to date from around 1620. Attempts were made to attach explosive devices to the hulls of British warships at anchor during the War of American Independence (failed due to the copper sheathing of the hulls). Robert Fulton also tried to interest the French who built the Nautilus in 1800. They were also used in the American Civil War and one the Hunley was recently salvaged.

  20. While the submarine was the older technology, in effective terms they are roughly the same age. If we consider that the truly effective submarine does not come to fruition until the later stages of the Second World War when we see submarine that can go as fast under water as they can over, or should that be through, it.

    With regard to what Jakob mentions the final element of this was of course the land factor where British planners, even when the BEF is being planned in the late 30s, expected the French Army to hold back any German onlslaught. Of course this does not happen but that was the original three-pronged strategy being considered.

  21. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I would say that even by your definition the submarine was an effective technology well before the aircraft. It was able to travel underwater for some distance. It was able to sink its target well before the first airplane flew (1864). Other factors combined to make development slow however, the same underwater and over water speed is not a major factor but more a desirable quality for positioning purposes. The aircraft is not really a city destroyer until the advent of the atomic bomb. The submarine when the Nuclear Ballistic Missile arrives and then it assumes a greater import -however, with nuclear armed submarines their impact is subsumed by the fact that they are a part of an overall strategy of MAD. The means of delivery of the weapon is not as important as the weapon itself and once again the submarine is not an item of fear in itself.

  22. It seems to me subs made themselves felt significantly before aircraft, in warfare.

    Leaving aside the experimentation period and 'firsts' of no actual military value at the time, the U Boat and other submarines had a significant direct military effect early in W.W.I (including diplomatically, with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915); while it was only later in the war that aircraft were beginning to be able to lift enough to do more than tangle with each other attempting to prevent reconnaissance efforts.

    The first equivalent activities could be argued to be the Independent Air Force of the 1918 RAF. Obviously one must recognise the role of aircraft in reconnaissance from the earliest days of the war, but vital though reconnaissance is, it's not a 'weapon', aircraft were also ancillary and of diversive use, not of significant effect while acting independently.

  23. Post author

    What Jakob said, re: disarmament/rearmament/appeasement and finance. Coincidentally (or not), I came across the paper I talk about in the post in its author's book: Joe Maiolo, Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War, 1931-41 (London: John Murray, 2010), which I recommend. It's an excellent synoptic overview of just this area, not just for Britain but for all the major powers.

    I think it's easy to bash Chamberlain, but there were many constraints on his power of action (let's not forget Churchill's role as Chancellor in the 1920s, as I'm sure Churchill himself would have wanted us to), and his policy was not just appeasement but appeasement+rearmament. Indeed while still at the Treasury Chamberlain was largely responsible for the RAF's early rearmament (it was cheaper than rebuilding the Army and Navy). Britain's financial strength was deemed to be its most powerful weapon, and rearming too hard, too fast would weaken it, not to mention requiring methods which smacked of totalitarianism. (One of the themes of Maiolo's book is the tension between democratic methods of preparing for total war and totalitarian ones, and how far the latter had to be emulated. In Maiolo's view, only the United States was able to avoid having to do this.)

  24. Neil Datson

    Rather sorry to have provoked such a stir with what I thought a rather throwaway remark about the relative antiquity of the aeroplane and submarine.

    Sure, submarines are older. But that is (partly) due to a lack of definition. The earliest 'submarines' were scarcely submarines within the meaning of the act. We have different terms for different methods of flight: hot air balloons, dirigibles, aircraft etc. Almost everything that goes underwater is called a submarine.

    Submarines are also a bit older in the sense that (as I see it) matters. But in that sense the gap is much smaller. Successful sea-going submarines depended on the internal combustion engine, just like successful aeroplanes.

    Submarines had no real impact on warfare before WWI, but they had more impact from the start of the war than aircraft. At the time it was mainly negative (in that fear of them constrained the operations of surface fleets). Later in the war they had far more impact through commerce destruction.

    So, I'm inclined to stick to my original point, in the sense that I meant it. Which is that aeroplanes and submarines might be more or less equally viewed by a man who lived from 1860 to 1940 as either exciting new technologies or modern horrors.

  25. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    The arguments which suggest that earlier rearmament would have created economic instability rather 'miss the bus' (to misuse a phrase of Chamberlian's). The realisation that rearmament was essential caused money to become available but one cannot really say that the British economy was in a state to bear it when the decision was finally taken. Thus rearmament could have been undertaken earlier but other factors intervened. One can list conservatism, appeasement, ineptitude of those governing and an aversion to an arms race as some among others. Most of the support for Chamberlain and the Treasury position founders on this point. If it was possible to rearm later then it was possible to rearm earlier and in the long run would have been less expensive to do so though this was not necessarily apparent at the time.
    Certainly aviation was favoured because it could argue it was cheaper but this was rather delaying the inevitable. The building of the Tribals and the JK class destroyers showed that unpleasant realities were being forced on the British government (previously construction had been at the rate of one flotilla and was now doubled). But to say that the British financial strength was one of its most weapons has to be seen as missing the point in a big way. If Britain was so financially strong it would have had no problems bearing the costs of rearmament. The idea of financial strength is an illusion. One cannot also assume that Chamberlain was a victim of circumstances - he was guiding the development of the latter stages of appeasement very closely. Andrew Roberts goes into the subject in detail and demonstrates that it was Lord Halifax who finally killed the policy off not Chamberlain. Chamberlain was another who was not as constrained by circumstances as some would have us believe.
    The air scare proved to be useful in all of this, to prevent rearmament and then to drive it but it was not a planned manipulation but something that happened to work. A submarine scare could not have had the same impact either way (out of sight, out of mind, perhaps?).

  26. Post author


    Sorry! Seeing as it's from Allen Lane, there's probably every chance it'll end up as a Penguin sooner or later.


    I didn't say Chamberlain was merely a victim of circumstance -- obviously he was in favour of appeasement and did not want to rearm -- but neither was he completely in control, as shown by the fact that Britain did in fact rearm during his residence at 11 then 10 Downing Street. And whether the 'idea of financial strength is an illusion' or not, neither Chamberlain, Halifax, the Treasury or anyone else with a say in the matter thought so in the 1930s. It's ahistorical to project our later knowledge back on to the past. Of course it was possible to rearm earlier. But why would they have? Nobody knew what was coming, or when.

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