Interdependent and inseparable — I

'Excubitor' is Latin for 'sentinel'; it was the pseudonym chosen by a frequent correspondent on naval affairs for the Fortnightly Review. In March 1908, for example, Excubitor contributed an article entitled 'The British reply to Germany's dreadnoughts'; the following January, 'The blessings of naval armaments'. By May 1913, though, a new theme had appeared. 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy' argued that the naval arms race with Germany was over: 'the naval predominance of Great Britain in Europe to-day is greater than it was before the passage of the first of the [German] Navy Acts in 1896'.1 But this didn't mean that Germany was going to give up its ambitions to match Britain at sea: it just meant that it was transferring its efforts to the air:

by the development of the new aerial arm -- airships and hydro-aeroplanes -- they hope to turn the scales in their favour. Germany possesses already about twenty large airships and over a dozen 'docks' of a permanent character, apart from private ships and 'docks' subsidised by the Government and available for naval and military use, and it is now proposed to increase the number of aerial Dreadnoughts to forty, and to build many more 'docks.' Cuxhaven, 300 miles from England, is to become a great airship station, with revolving sheds so as to enable the vessels to be launched whatever the direction of the wind, and to set forth, armed with quick-firing guns and provided with explosives, on missions of reconnaissance over the British arsenals and the bases and the bases where British squadrons and flotillas are being prepared for action. British naval strategy is to be robbed of secrecy, and secrecy in preparation is of the essence of successful strategy. This the Admiralstab in Berlin fully realises.2

According to Excubitor, the danger is grave:

Sea-power is costly, while air-power is cheap: for the cost of a single Dreadnought of the sea, a dozen Dreadnoughts of the air, each with a revolving shed of the latest type, can be constructed. German expert opinion believes that by command of the air Germany can neutralise our superiority on the sea, besides unnerving the civil population and thus embarrassing the Government by cruising over these islands -- high above the reach of artillery -- and dropping bombs. This is the confessed policy of Germany, and we have not a single long-range airship by which we can take the only effective defensive action -- the strong offensive.3

And the hour is late:

We cannot reply to the aerial danger by developing our naval or military strength, but we must take the offensive in the air, threatening with our superior airships, in numbers proportionate to our naval strength, any potential enemy. We are now open to attack by Germany, and we must lose no time in placing ourselves in a position to retaliate.4

But not yet too late:

if immediate steps are taken there is no reason why we should not make as secure our command of the air as we are making secure our command of the sea, convinced that the future will show that aerial power and naval power are interdependent and inseparable. The essential point is that we must adopt in aerial matters our well-tried policy in naval matters -- the bold offensive. Our airships, like our sea-ships, must be able to carry war to the enemy's frontiers and thus free us from its horrors. This is the only policy compatible with safety, and to that policy we must bend all our splendid industrial and scientific resources if we are not to incur the risk of our naval supremacy passing from us.2

As I'll discuss in another post, Excubitor was far from alone in asserting an 'interdependent and inseparable' connection between aerial strategy and naval strategy, that Germany was attempting to use its mastery of the air to overcome its inferiority to Britain at sea.

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  1. Excubitor, 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy', Fortnightly Review 93 (May 1913), 868. []
  2. Ibid. [] []
  3. Ibid., 868-9. []
  4. Ibid., 880. []

6 thoughts on “Interdependent and inseparable — I

  1. Neil Datson

    Obviously from mankind's earliest thoughts of conquering the air those thoughts embraced the military potential. The early period of that conquest (1900 to 1920 to give it a definition) the way the British (possibly especially the English) thought about that military potential was strikingly different from other Europeans.

    For continental Europeans the use of the air was just another dimension of warfare. For the British it was seen as a revolutionary game changer - Britain no longer an island! Britain at the mercy of her neighbours! For better or worse, the British simply could not see air power in the way that the Germans, the French and the Italians saw it.

    This difference of view reverberated right down the twentieth century. It led to the British always being ahead of the game in recognising the potential of air power, but often so far ahead that they were betrayed into error.

    It is also the foundation stone of their popular view of their own immediate past. The Battle of Britain myth (here Datson tilts at windmill) is dependent on a belief in air power as a game changer that it probably couldn't have been in 1940, regardless of the actual balance of power between the Luftwaffe and the RAF.

    Excubitor's speculations fit into a pattern that is so pronounced that it could be called a national obsession.

  2. maurizio

    My dear friend, I noticed that the scareship sightings of 1908 and 1913 occurred during the crisis with Germany ... do you think the events could be linked to the fear of hocheseflotte? this article makes me think its a shortcut ... the scareship as zeppellins like Ufos '50s as aircraft from the Soviet Union ...

  3. Post author


    I agree that the British took the prospect of aerial warfare to heart more than other Europeans, and that this had a lot to do with the perceived loss of their island status. And to say they were 'often so far ahead that they were betrayed into error' is a fair call. But I don't think the differences were as fundamental as you suggest. Douhet was Italian; the German public were extremely enthusiastic about their Zeppelins; Russia was developing heavy bombers before 1914; and so on. Instead I'd trace the difference to the war itself, and the very different experiences of each nation's civilians, marked by invasion, famine, revolution… and bombing, in the case of Britain. It's no wonder the British focused on that threat even more after 1918, whereas the other countries certainly worried about bombing but usually as only one among a number of things the home front needed to be defended against. (Douhet had little enough honour in his own country.)


    Yes, but then the Royal Navy was rarely short of good names for its capital ships!


    I think they are definitely related -- part of what I am trying to argue in these posts is that the 1913 airship scare (at least) was a continuation of the dreadnought scares by other means. Excubitor believed that it was the Germans who were doing the continuing, but whether or not that was true, British naval propagandists were certainly doing the same, except their airships were imaginary, not real. The question is: why there was an airship scare in 1913, when the dreadnought race was over and relations with Germany had improved? I think it was a mix of genuine fear that Germany had stolen a march on Britain and political calculation that this was a good way for Conservatives to keep attacking the Liberal government.

  4. Neil Datson

    Brett, your comments about the German Zeppelins and Russian bombers are absolutely valid, but surely the crucial difference is the way in which theories and notions about such weapons systems permeated through society, even before 1914. Behind the sabre-rattling the continental peoples were a great deal more conscious of the realities of war. For the British (especially for the English) it was still widely seen as a glorious adventure that took place in foreign parts. From 1918, as you observe, for the British bombing was the big threat, for the French, Germans, Italians etc it was simply one of the great catalogue of horrors. In that context it isn't so surprising that 'Douhet had little enough honour in his own country'. What is more surprising is that he had so little honour in Britain.

    Incidentally, Excubitor makes a rather bizarre observation in this passage:

    'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy' argued that the naval arms race with Germany was over: 'the naval predominance of Great Britain in Europe to-day is greater than it was before the passage of the first of the [German] Navy Acts in 1896'.

    It might have been argued (though without great confidence) that the 'naval arms race' was over. But the second clause, claiming an improved balance of power, is incomprehensible.

  5. Post author

    surely the crucial difference is the way in which theories and notions about such weapons systems permeated through society, even before 1914. Behind the sabre-rattling the continental peoples were a great deal more conscious of the realities of war.

    I can't agree, though. By 1914 it was the better part of two generations since the Franco-Prussian war and the Austro-Prussian war, and the war that was remembered was not the war they were about to fight. The only recent wars fought by major powers did not involve their homelands but were effectively colonial: Russia in the far east, Italy in north Africa, Turkey in the Balkans/north Africa -- and Britain in South Africa. The British people had as good an idea as any of them as to the 'realities of war'. Which is to say not very, it was the First World War itself which taught everyone that (again, different lessons for different countries, though). And to repeat, continental Europeans had their own fantasies/nightmares about aerial warfare. One of my prized possessions is an early paperback published in Britain in 1913 entitled War in Space -- you can guess from the cover how lurid it is. Yet it is a translation of a French novel in which Zeppelins bomb Paris, not London (I want to say they obliterate Paris, but I'm not at home to check).

    Incidentally, I don't think Douhet's failure to impress in Britain is much of a mystery: he wasn't needed because the British already had their own prophets.

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