Part of my summer reading has been British naval historian Geoffrey Till’s excellent 2014 book Understanding victory: naval operations from Trafalgar to the Falklands. At first glance it doesn’t seem to offer much to anyone who has read a bit of naval history. In its slim 200-odd pages it looks at the Battles of Trafalgar and Jutland, the sinking of HMS Repulse off Malaya in 1941 and the travails of HMS Glamorgan in the Falklands campaign in 1982. Given that there are shelves of books on each of those four topics, a new angle’s required to produce a worthwhile contribution to the literature.
Till does that by two devices. First, he tells the story from the viewpoint of a single ship, and not always the obvious one. For example, central to the account of Trafalgar is HMS Belleisle, rather than the much better known Victory or Royal Sovereign. And the much analysed Battle of Jutland is from the viewpoint of HMS New Zealand. The second device is a deconstruction of each battle into components of capability, rather than a retelling of the story of the battle and its key figures. The subtitle of this book would be more accurate if it was ‘the fundamental inputs to capability in naval warfare’, because that’s what it’s actually about: the front line platform being the tip of a much bigger iceberg.
The Belleisle is interesting for various reasons, including the fact that it started life with the French Navy before being captured and pressed into the Royal Navy. Till describes it as a ‘Death Star’ of its time, and observes that it had ‘more firepower than Napoleon’s entire army at Austerlitz’. But as impressive as that is, I think the main reason for shifting the focus from the flagships to a ship further down the line is to allow Till to develop his main theme of the enablers of victory.
It’s a focus that’s lost in far too many discussions of military capability. The Royal Navy wasn’t victorious at Trafalgar because it had better ships—Till makes it clear that French naval engineering was ahead of Britain’s in many ways, as the Belleisle attests—but because of all of the other elements that had to come together for success. Most militaries have their own list of capability inputs, varying in the way they’re broken down but ultimately covering much the same ground. (See the American, British and Australian definitions.) Till breaks them down into these 11 categories, a longer list than militaries usually employ:
- Strategic design
- Technological advantage
- Command and leadership
- Organisational efficiency and supply
- Concepts of operations
- Battle awareness
Looking at classic battles this way allows a new perspective to emerge. To give one of Till’s many examples, the logistics capability and quartermasters of the Royal Navy were fairly reliably able to provide enough vitamin C to avoid widespread scurvy outbreaks. They also provided enough food on board for daily intakes to be as high as 5,000 calories. The combination of the absence of sickness and the energy provided by a robust diet meant that English gun crews could maintain the backbreaking business of manhandling and reloading cannons, or pulling down miles of rigging and large sails for longer than their Spanish and French counterparts at Trafalgar. Few ships were actually sunk in naval battles at the time, and the battle typically went to the side able to inflict the most damage on its foes. In the wind-powered slow motion naval battles of the time, the extra rate of fire was a true ‘force multiplier’.
The perspective in this book is a refreshing one, and I couldn’t help but think of the shallow discussion of air combat capability that accompanied the leaking of the F-16 versus F-35 dogfight report. Technological advantages matter, but they aren’t the beginning and end of the story. I think Till could usefully have added ‘numbers’ and ‘persistence’ to his list of enablers, but he still does a worthwhile service.
In a thoughtful conclusion, he observes that this book is in some ways a pushback against the ‘revolution in military affairs’ fad of the 1990s, which was driven very much by a feeling that technology had finally found a way to trump everything else. That might’ve been how things looked in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, but we have a much better sense of perspective about it now. As Till observes, sometimes battles matter to the fate of nations. When they do, ‘silver bullet’ technology answers might not be available to carry the day—but you can bet that the elements of warfare that underpin the four examples in this book will still have a say.