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HMS Audacious sinks

On 27 October 1914 HMS Audacious, one of the Royal Navy’s newer battleships hit a mine and sank. The government censored the story and the loss wasn’t officially admitted until after the war had ended. This is about as close as readers of the Times got to hearing about it officially:

The Times 6 November 1914 p4

The Times 6 November 1914 p4

The point being that the Olympic (sister ship of the Titanic) helped in the rescue operation. Many of its passengers were Americans and some even took photographs. As there was no censorship in America news of the sinking slowly filtered across the Atlantic. There’s a good discussion about the sinking here:

So, why the secrecy? Partly this was because of where the Audacious sank. The fleet was supposed to be in Scapa Flow in the Orkneys guarding the North Sea. However, due to the state of the submarine defences there it was thought prudent to move it to Lough Swilly off the northern coast of Ireland. The navy did not want the idea to get out that the North Sea was an open house.

HMS Audacious sinking

HMS Audacious sinking

But there may have been another reason. The early months of the war had been a disaster for the Royal Navy. The German battlecruiser, Goeben, had evaded the British in the Mediterranean and went on to play a large part in bringing Turkey into the war. Three cruisers, the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy had managed to get themselves sunk by the same submarine in the Channel in the space of an hour and a half. At the battle of Coronel a British cruiser squadron had attacked a superior German force with disastrous results. In the southern oceans the commerce raider Emden was making fools of its pursuers, seemingly able to pop up out of nowhere to shell ports and destroy wireless stations. There may have been a desire not to admit just how badly things were going.

In situations like this questions are bound to be asked about the man at the top – or the First Lord of the Admiralty to give him his grand, official title – but it would take another year and more disasters before he would finally be sacked. The chap’s name? Oh yes, Winston Churchill.

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33 comments to HMS Audacious sinks

  • He musta learned learned a few things from his experience.

  • The sinking of the Emden in November 1914 by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean after a one on one battle between the two ships is a much commemorated event in Australia. The new Royal Australian Navy was (and still is) seen as having done something glorious. (On the other hand, the sinking of the second HMAS Sydney by the German raider Kormoran in World War 2 was possibly the RAN’s lowest ever moment, so Australians have mixed feelings about warships named Sydney)

  • bob sykes

    Churchill’s gift was inspirational leadership. When it came to strategy, he was an idiot.

  • Paul Marks

    The Royal Navy (with the help of the French Navy) managed to cover the delivery of the British Army to France and to cover supplies – this was the vital thing, the rest is (to be brutally frank) details.

    As for Winston Churchill – what could he have done that he did not do?

  • Mr Ed

    As for Winston Churchill – what could he have done that he did not do?

    Well as Beatty out it at Jutland

    there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today

    Perhaps putting TNT in Royal Navy shells? There were lots of issues with the Royal Navy in WW1 that came out in the wash.

  • pete

    I find the current obsession with WW1 a bit boring.

    It was 100 years ago.

    I don’t see why that means it is any more interesting and relevant to the modern day than it was last year when it was only 99 years ago or it will be next year when it will be 101 years ago.

    And in the light of what happened a few years later which made it look like a vicar’s tea party I don’t think it has any fundamental lessons to teach us about human nature.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    And in Because of the light of it shed on what happened it caused to happen a few years later which made it look like a vicar’s tea party I don’t think it has any horribly fundamental lessons to teach us about human nature.”

  • Mr Black

    My reading of history tends to cast Hitler and Churchill in the same light when it came to strategy. Both had grand designs and sweeping ideas about how the war would or should play out and in the first half of the war it went Hitlers way as he has the numbers. In the second half it went Churchills way, as by then he had the numbers. When the situation was not favorable to either one, their grand schemes only made things worse. Churchill was simply fortunate to have powerful allies to shoulder the load of his mistakes.

  • JohnK

    Churchill had a general staff whom he did not hang from meat hooks. If you read sources such as Alanbrooke’s diaries you will see that the staff usually managed to head off most of Churchill’s more fanciful ideas. Of course Churchill’s really big idea was to get the USA in on our side, which did happen, with a bit of help from the Japs.

  • Nicholas (natural Genius) Gray

    Churchill hated gridlocked armies. He was always trying to think around them- he had a major hand in tank development, hoping that a shock weapon could lead to victory. I am glad we had someone who was trying to get things done, since trench warfare wasn’t working.
    Also, about press censorship- Harry Turtledove wrote an amusing short story about Pearl Harbor, with the press freely reporting anything without regard to the enemy reading them (such as ships going to Midway), and then blaming the administration when the battle gets lost! Only amusing because it didn’t work out that way, but could a libertarian ever justify press censorship, or should it be left up to individual consciences?

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    It would have been Adm Jellicoe who was responsible for most of ‘difficulties’, as Commander, Grand Fleet.

    Cheers

  • Alsadius

    I’ve read a lot of Churchill’s own books and a lot of writing on him, and the guy frankly seems like the only person in all of WW1 to actually think like a strategist(well, unless you count Schlieffen). His plans mostly blew up through incompetent implementation, which was often his own fault, but he was thinking in terms of tanks and amphibious assaults at undefended points, while everyone else was trying to figure out how many men it took to run the enemy’s machine guns out of bullets. If he’d won the arguments on how to use tanks, they’d have been able to blow holes in the German lines virtually at will in 1917, and if Gallipoli had actually been conceived and supported sensibly, the war would have been at least a year shorter(though he does take some of the blame for the planning of that abortion).

    His role in WW2 was less technical in nature – his gizmos had a much worse track record there – but he also pretty much singlehandedly kept the war alive after France fell, so he’s allowed some stupid ideas about aerial minefields.

    He’s the sort of guy who has ten ideas, eight of which are boneheaded, when nobody else would have any. As long as you put a filter between him and implementation, he did great work. Hitler was actually pretty similar in that regard, except that instead of eight bonehaded ideas, Hitler would have had at least fourteen.

  • Wars are full of mistakes. Errors abound. Look at the American side of Midway. One cock up after another. Thing is – the Americans made fewer mistakes and some of their mistakes actually helped – like sending in attacks piecemeal. Well it was not the American intention to do that. But it worked.

    For the attack that decided the battle the Japanese were both tired and in the wrong place. And due to a command mis-estimation they had unsecured munitions laying about. And the Japanese got in that position by not following their original plan.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I am afraid that the truth of the matter is that at least as far as the First World War was concerned Winston Churchill was a hopeless strategist.

    He was an Easterner. He believed that it was possible to bypass the horrors of the Western Front by launching campaigns in the East. He was wrong. All that happened, as Gallipoli demonstrated, was that the horros were moved to the East.

    The men who got it right were Kitchener, Robertson and Haig. They saw that the only way to win the war was to defeat the German army on the Western Front. This is precisely how the war was eventually won.

    As far as the tank goes it has been subject to far too much myth making. The First World War tank was given every opportunity to show its worth – Haig ordered 1000 the moment he heard about them – and missed every single one of them. It was slow, unreliable and vulnerable. It could be even be taken out by a rifle if it had the right ammunition. After 8 hours inside the crew had to be hospitalised due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Tankists always like to point to Cambrai as an example of what the tank was capable of. But they always forget to mention two essential facts. First Cambrai was also the first time a predicted barrage (a surprise barrage might be a better description) was tried. Second, by day three the British who had begun with over 300 tanks had only a handful left. Many of them had been taken out by a single German field gun at Flesquieres.

    The First World War was primarily won by the artillery. By using predicted barrages it was able to surprise the enemy. By using gas it was able to slow him down. By using smoke it was able to obscure the infantry’s advance. By using the 106 fuse it was able to destroy barbed wire. And by using the creeping barrage it was able to keep the enemies’ heads down.

  • Jacob

    Churchill was sacked, as far as I remember, after Gallipoli. Gallipoli was his “baby”.
    As to the “glorious” British Royal Navy – it was neutralized by German submarines, and didn’t play a significant role in WW1.

    WW1 was won on the Western front because nothing else was tried. The fighting in the Western front was a horrible waste of lives, from which the British Empire never recovered.

  • it was neutralized by German submarines, and didn’t play a significant role in WW1.

    LOL. Yes other than shutting down German global trade it did nothing. German submarines failed to do the same to Britain.

  • Jacob

    “Yes other than shutting down German global trade it did nothing”
    Germany never had much of a global trade – it was not dependent on it. It was a continental power. True, Germany lost her African colonies, but they were probably more of a drag than an asset, anyway.

    “German submarines failed to do the same to Britain.”. It was a narrow escape. They did do much damage, and Britain was indeed much more dependent on maritime communication and resupply. It was the US that saved Britain when it persisted in supplying Britain in the face of the submarine warfare (which also brought the US into the war). The RN failed in subduing or diminishing the submarine threat. The RN played a mostly defensive role, they prevented Germany from using their surface navy for meaningful attacks on Britain or France. This was an achievement, but not a very impressive one.
    The RN failed, for instance, to seal up or damage the German submarine bases. The RN itself was bottled up at Scapa Flow, fearing the subs.

  • JohnK

    Jacob:

    There is a reason that the German war economy collapsed in 1918, and its people were starving. What do you think it might have been?

  • Mr Ed

    The Royal Navy had too many men doing nothing much in the First World War and even formed the Royal Naval Division to bolster the Army.

  • TK

    Mr. Ed is quite correct that many RN problems came out in the wash during The Great War. It is not fair, however, to apportion the blame for those problems to Churchill, except in a limited way, as he had lots of company. In this case, failure had many fathers.

    The RN had ruled the waves uncontested for over a century, so it is perhaps understandable that overconfidence, complacency, and bureaucratic sclerosis had taken a firm grasp of the RN. Admiral Fisher had only in the past decade begun to undo decades of stagnation. The acrimonious relationship between Churchill and the recalled Fisher in the aftermath of Gallipoli was unfortunate for both men, and for the RN.

    Nor is it at all fair to blame Jellicoe for “difficulties” as J.M. Heinrichs suggested above. Jellicoe was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. He didn’t. He kept the High Seas Fleet at bay even while greatly enhancing the battle capability of the Grand Fleet, which was quite poor when he assumed command. Until the QE dreadnoughts arrived, the HSF had better quality ships (fire control, armor, etc.)than the GF. Further, their sailors were better trained, especially in gunnery.

    Beatty was brave and energetic, but a rather mediocre commander (a first class, back-stabbing, self-promoter, of course). Jellicoe was an excellent commander who rebuilt the GF into an effective fighting force while accomplishing his strategic objectives – enforce the blockade and keep the HSF at bay. History has been unfairly unkind to Admiral Jellicoe.

    As Perry correctly notes, the RN was instrumental in winning The Great War as the blockade absolutely strangled the German war effort. The war was indeed won on the Western Front, but without the RN’s effort, it’s quite conceivable that Germany might have emerged as the winner.

  • Jacob

    “There is a reason that the German war economy collapsed in 1918, and its people were starving. What do you think it might have been?”

    Maybe that they lost a war ?? They too sent all their men to the front to be killed…

  • JohnK

    Jacob:

    So your argument is that Germany lost the war because they lost the war? Have another go. Why do you think their economy collapsed?

  • NickM

    Tanks and battleships are drivel. Wars are or should be won from the air.

    You might say it didn’t work against x, y or z. It worked against Japan.

    I call this the “Ripley Doctrine”. Nuke ’em from orbit – it is the only way to be sure.

    I also call it “Operation Meccatrate”.

  • Mr Ed

    NickM has a fair point, with the formation of the RAF on 1st April 1918, the tide turned against the Central Powers. Now that I can make assertions without regard for cause and effect, can I get some Climate Science funding, ta muchly.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Nicholas (natural Genius) Gray @ November 17, 2014 at 12:09 am:

    … could a libertarian ever justify press censorship…

    Can a libertarian justify war? The answer, I think, is yes. If so, then actions that are necessities of war are justified, included censorship. This was the great tragedy of the 20th century.

    War is the health of the state. Fighting a war may be better than submission to tyranny or plunder, but it has huge costs for liberty.

    This applies not only to actual war, but to preparations taken in precaution against war, including the whole apparatus of the security state.

    I suggested in a recent comment that after WW I, the four Great Powers among the victors should have taken over the world and established (by force) a permanent peace. One response was that “world government” was a bad idea to libertarians, because there would be no escape from the world state.

    I look at “world anarchy” and see the enormous damage to liberty of World War II, the Cold War, many lesser wars, and the “War on (Islamic) Terror”, even though the ultimate losers were the worst enemies of liberty.

    Without World War II and the Cold War, and the gangster regimes they were fought against, would there even be an NSA today?

  • Mr Ed

    Rich R:

    The problem with the four Great Powers establishing a World Peace, quite apart from the Soviet Union’s existence, which was accompanied by what was an effective declaration of war on the entire world and the avowed intent to form a worldwide Soviet republic, would be that sooner or later, in place of an Eisenhower as US president, you would get a younger Bush or an Obama, and a Blair in the UK, who seem to see the doing of ‘good’ as their purpose in life, no matter what the cost.

    I see WW2 as a suicide mission for the UK, no victory, just a peace, and a chance to get the populace to turn war socialism against the ancient liberties of England in peacetime, but with joy in the hearts.

  • pete

    Natalie, why do you assume that something like WW2 wouldn’t have happened if WW1 hadn’t?

    I think it entirely probable that we’d have had a really huge war like WW2 by now even if WW1 had never happened. The temptation to use new, deadly weapons would have been to much for world leaders, just as it was in 1914.

    If it hadn’t been for the invention of nuclear weapons then the big western countries and Japan would probably still be having conventional wars with each other every couple of decades or so.

    For example, without the threat of mutually assured destruction I think we could now have a big war about the Ukraine and the Crimea. Banning the sale of cheese to Russia is what we do now thanks to nuclear weapons.

  • Paul Marks

    Patrick – you seem to have confused strategy and tactics.

    The idea that operation to knock Turkey out of the war (by sailing to Constantinople – the only enemy capital on the coast and therefor vulnerable to the Royal Navy) and linking up with the Russians was CORRECT.

    It would have ended the war years before it did end – and saved millions of lives.

    Indeed it would have saved tens of millions of lives – as it would have prevented successful Marxist Revolution in Russia.

    It is quite true that the commanders chosen for the operation (for example as Sulva Bay) were indeed “hopeless” – but that is matter of TACTICS not “strategy”.

    Did Winston Churchill choose these incompetent commanders?

    Well no – but a person who comes up with a strategy has a duty to make sure it is not handed over to clowns (which is what the generals chosen were) to tactically implement.

    For example, if it decided to attack the Germans on the Western front (a decision of strategy) it is a duty to make sure that the tactical side of such attacks (inevitably infantry attacks) is commanded by someone with a detailed knowledge of infantry tactics.

    In reality command on the Western front was in the hands of General Haig (a man you have, astonishingly, defended in the past) who had no knowledge of infantry tactics what-so-ever.

    So even if the strategy of attacking on the Western front had been correct, placing such attacks tactically in the hands of General Haig (and men who thought like him) was a mistake – because they did not know what they were doing (having no knowledge of infantry tactics).

    However good the village carpenter is, one does not put him charge of the forge and make him the village blacksmith.

    Still that is getting us off topic.

    To return to the actual topic.

    To call Winston Churchill a “hopeless” strategist when his strategy was CORRECT is absurd.

    It was at the level of TACTICS (for example the failure to attack at once at Sulva Bay – standing around, after the landing, waiting for the enemy to rush in reinforcement and build defences) that the operation broke down.

  • Paul Marks

    Turning to an examination of Winston Churchill on a TACTICAL level.

    As Mr Ed has pointed out there was a lack of concern with basic tactical details in the Royal Navy – and the man at the very top (the First Sea Lord) can not escape blame for this.

    Some defects were unavoidable – for example Royal Navy ships had to operate at longer ranges and that meant they had to have more room for coal. More space for coal means less space for other things – thus giving German ships (designed just to attack Britain in the North Sea and so on – think about that) an advantage.

    However, there were other things wrong.

    The lack of training in night fighting (the use of search lights and so on) was bad.

    Also the use of silk bags to move dangerous materials around Royal Navy ships.

    Nelson (and the others) a century before had rejected the use of silk bags (which inevitably leak – thus leading to fires and explosions) a century before. Using sealed containers was standard practice in the time of Nelson (as it is today).

    The use of silk bags in the First World War is astonishing.

    It is not on the same scale of criminal negligence as sending men in long lines to attack prepared defences on the Western front (for example after LYING to the commanders of the two divisions he sent to their death on the second day of the Battle of Loos, General Haig should have been court marshalled, but he used his political connections to be promoted instead).

    But the use of silk bags is one of those “details” a “big picture thinker” like Churchill would have overlooked – he was a strategy man (and a GOOD one), not a TACTICS man.

    TACTICS.

    Someone who (for example) defends General Haig’s behaviour in relation to the battle of Loos (especially the second day) has no tactical grasp. Whatever Mr Haig’s other qualities he should not have been allowed any involvement in infantry matters. Which means that he should not have been on the Western Front – which depended on a detailed knowledge of infantry tactics.

    It was not necessary for Haig to turn into someone like General Plumer (who had fought the Sudanese pistol-in-hand when he was with the 65th Foot when their square was broken – and had spent his life as combat soldier in many wars) or Smith-Dorrien – one of the handful of British solders to fight their way out of the Zulu victory of Isandhlwana. Smith-Dorrien was Plumer predecessor as commander of the Second Army on the Western Front – before he was removed by Sir John French (who was later himself removed due to the political moves of his “loyal” subordinate Haig, who wanted his job).

    People like Plumer and Smith-Dorrien had seen and done things that would drive most ordinary people (such as Haig – or ME) insane with terror.

    I could not imagine myself walking around (on my own) the hills and plains of the Holy Land (as Plumer did as an old man in the 1920s) because “I have to see the position for myself” – Haig would not have done that, and neither would I (some men seem to be born without fear – or with an almost infinite capacity to control it).

    However, Haig showed no ability to learn about infantry tactics (as his interventions at Passchendaele in 1917 showed) – but maintained a great deal of self confidence that he (Haig) was some sort of great commander.

    It is not ignorance itself that is fatal – it is ignorance mixed with lack of self knowledge (an ignorant man who KNOWS he is ignorant defers to others).

    Haig was a first rate ADMINISTRATOR (an “inspector” of cavalry – not someone you want in charge of an actual cavalry battle, let alone an infantry one) and, in his own “inarticulate” way (actually he was a master of using a few fatally wounding words to, to the right people including the King, to destroy rivals and gain positions for himself) a master of political manipulation – not a skill to be underestimated (Wellington had the same skill – and needed it)).

    But Haig was not a battlefield commander – he had no tactical grasp.

    STRATEGY.

    Someone who does not understand that the Gallipoli campaign was STRAGICALLY correct, but TACTICALLY messed up, has failed to grasp the difference between strategy and tactics.

    Leaving aside all Haig matters.

    The failure to grasp strategy (not tactics – strategy) is really serious.

    Patrick – if you do not grasp the need to link up with the Russians (to complete the encirclement of the Central Powers) then you do not understand the First World War.

    No amount of reading can substitute for this – one must coordinate with one’s allies, and that means that Turkey had to be knocked out of the war.

    That is really basic stuff – utterly basic.

    No amount of reading newspapers of books is any good if one has not grasped the basics.

    Indeed (although I have attacked Churchill about the silk bags – and many other things could be said against him also) – it is much better than a mind gets the big things right (and leaves the details to others) than for a mind to get the big things wrong – because of an obsession with details.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Gallipoli was not a failure because of the inadequacies of the commanders involved. It was a failure because it was always going to be a failure. Here is what Peter Hart has to say on p.ix (Preface) of Gallipoli:

    But historians must beware of being caught up in the romance of the campaign and sucked into thinking that it was either a justifiable operation of war or that it had a realistic chance of success. The Western Front was where the war would be decided and the German Army defeated.

    For the Allies it was difficult terrain, far away. For the Turks it was almost bang in the centre of their communications.

    I would remind you that Amiens was an all-arms battle, involving tanks, aircraft and artillery, as well as infantry. As almost all pre-war tactics had to be abandoned infantry expertise would have been of little use. The key was the ability to understand and respond to the new conditions and new technology. And none of this would have been any use without good logistics. And who was responsible for the massive improvement in logistics?

  • Paul Marks

    It is interesting how men react differently to horrific experiences.

    Smith-Dorrien (always in terrible pain from his wounds – both physical and mental) had an explosive temper (like Allenby) – but a temper that tended to vanish when things were really bad, or when he realised that he the person he was shouting at was becoming upset (the exact opposite of a bully – Smith-Dorrien hated to see people suffering, and his temper vanished if he could see suffering).

    Plumer was different – he hid his intellect under an “charming old buffer” act (although he had no go along with ignoring real ignorance – scoring the “Educated Soldier” low in his examinations, an action for which Haig never forgave him).

    When things were really bad Plumer (unlike the serious Smith-Dorrien) was a I-am-just-going-down-to-the-tuck-shop-do-you-want-any-sweets type which made some soldiers think he was insane – but did get their minds off their terror (which, of course, was his intention).

    Normal people react differently, for example when the Germans looked set to win in 1914 Haig panicked (as I am sure I would have – in a similar situation) talking about “selling our lives dearly” whilst waving his revolver (there were no Germans anywhere in sight as he did this – I am not sure that Douglas Haig ever actually killed anyone personally, odd in a life spent in the army – Haig behaved better in 1918, but he was further away from the actual fighting).

    This is how normal people break under pressure (I repeat – no doubt I would be much the same).

    It is a very odd person who enjoys warfare – who finds it relaxing.

    Winston Churchill was such a person – at his best when things were at their worst.

    However, his letters to his wife show that he (Churchill) understood that he was an unusual person, with perhaps perverse reactions to things.

    Terrible noise of explosions, screams of dying men, the prospect of being killed – these things upset normal people.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Paul I have asked you once before to substantiate your claim about Haig “lying”. I ask you again.

  • Mr Ed

    A poignant look forward to the surrender of the High Seas Fleet 21/11/18.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30128199