/ This kind of perspective? Yes, it is ideal, but not available for the Admirals of the First and Second World War.
"Network-centered warfare" is the hot concept in modern times Military Thinking – Soldiers fight not only with weapons, but within a network of sensors and computations to give them and their commanders a superior awareness of the battlefield, but the problems of this approach have been designed to solve problems that are timeless Enemy is out there somewhere. How do I find them? How do I pursue them? When the fight has started, how do I know where to go? Heck, how can I even keep an eye on my own people?
Long before IoT concepts polluted the world, the early 20th century navies were among the first to adopt a systematic approach to answering these questions. The sail had given way to steam and the European colonies were metastasized all over the world. Warships moved faster and required coordination over longer distances than ever before. In the meantime, telegraphs and radio enabled immediate communication at unprecedented distances. All of this combined led to a revolution in the way the Navy used information.
If you've played strategy games like StarCraft or Civilization, or seen Cold War techno thrillers, you've seen the ideal ad for a commander: a map that shows and tracks the positions and status of friends and foes alike in real time . This unified picture gave the leaders a God's view of the battlefield that could be used to make accurate decisions. But how did commanders create this image without computers, GPS, and communication satellites? How did you keep your cards accurate and up to date?
It may be hard to figure out now, but the great sea powers of the day all had their own methods, and their use had profound implications for tactics, strategy, warship design, and ultimately combat. It's no exaggeration to say that some of the great naval battles of World War I and WWII were aimed not only at firepower but also at computing power.
Battlecruisers and the birth of an information-centered war
In 1900 the British Empire was at its peak and the Royal Navy ruled the waves. But the British had a problem. Russia and France were the UK's most likely enemies and they knew they could not keep up with the Royal Navy in a direct battle. Instead, they built armored cruisers – powerful warships that could sink anything smaller than a battleship while being much faster. In the event of war, these ships would be released on British shipping routes, which is an existential threat to an empire held together by maritime trade.
To counter this threat, Great Britain began building its own armored cruisers, which were even faster and heavier armed than the French and Russian ships. Ships on the open sea are difficult to find, which is why Britain had to build enough armored cruisers to be able to station them on all trade routes. It was like playing a blow to the mole by buying a hammer for each hole, and it quickly became prohibitive. As rich as the British Empire was, it had to find a different strategy.
Enter Admiral John "Jacky" Fisher. Fisher was appointed First Sea Lord, commander of the Royal Navy in 1904. He is famous for his technical innovations, especially for the design of the HMS Dreadnought, which set the standard for all subsequent battleships. What is less known is that Fisher was not tasked with translating his ideas to transform the Royal Navy into a better force, but to stop the massive growth of the Navy's budget.
His solution to the armored cruiser problem was another revolutionary ship concept: the battle cruiser. It would have a faster speed than any existing armored cruiser, but it would carry the same weapons as a battleship. In theory, it could hunt and destroy any armored cruiser while remaining out of range of the cruiser's own cannons.
The battle cruiser was so important that the Royal Navy initially only built a new battleship to try out the dreadnought concept, but immediately built three Invincible-class battle cruisers. Battlecruisers now have a controversial place in maritime history that is too complicated to go into here. One question worth raising is why Fisher and everyone else thought they were a good idea. Given the overall budget problem, how could the British start building ships that were even more expensive than the armored cruisers they were replacing?
The answer to these questions is less obvious and not as well known – because they are not about the technology of the ships, but about how Fisher imagined them. Norman Friedman discusses this in detail in his book Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology.
If you compare a British battle cruiser to a battleship of that time, you can see some obvious differences: fewer weapons, more funnels. But there is another, more subtle difference: the battle cruisers were each equipped with towering masts to accommodate long-range radio antennas. These antennas enabled communication with land-based stations from hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away and were the key to a new type of cruiser war.
The battle cruiser HMS Invincible. Note her two massive tripod masts, between which long-range radio antennas were lined up.
Compare that to the HMS Dreadnought battleship, with more weapons and armor, but only one big tripod mast.
Fisher knew that Britain could not afford to build enough battle cruisers to cover all of its trade routes. But it wouldn't be necessary – Britain was not only a naval superpower, but also an information superpower. British companies had built up a global network of telegraph cables and radio transmitters in the past few decades, which meant that Great Britain had access to the best communication infrastructure in the world.
Instead of sending his battlecruisers to the remotest corners of the earth and patrolling enemy cruisers hoping to find them, Fisher would wait. Reports of attacks on British shipping would be immediately returned to the Admiralty (British Naval Headquarters) in London and put together to provide an image of the locations and activities of enemy cruisers. Then the admiralty could direct the battlecruisers to just the right places to find and destroy those enemies. It was like a fire control problem, but instead of trying to hit a ship with a cannon shell, the battlecruisers themselves were projectiles fired by the admiralty.
To realize his vision of a centrally controlled battle cruiser force, Fisher needed a clear picture of the threats. So he set up a top secret room in the Admiralty Building, where intelligence reports and shipping news from around the world were grouped together on large maps showing the locations of all the friendly and known enemy ships.
This became known as the Admiralty Plan. Unlike the displays you can see in a modern military headquarters (which can be updated every few minutes or seconds), these paper cards had an "update rate" of hours or even days. Still, they were revolutionary because for the first time in history, a central commander could view a representation of the world marine situation, with every friendly and well-known enemy force being tracked around the world in near real time. The British leadership could then issue appropriate orders.
/ Unfortunately I could not find any pictures of the admiralty plot from the time of the First World War. This picture from the Second World War shows a plot in the filter room of the Duxford Imperial War Museum which shows how planes were chased during the Battle of Britain, warships would have been chased similarly in the admiralty plot.
This was the innovative strategy behind the battle cruiser, and it was particularly in a spectacular battle realized during the First World War.
Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the German East Asian squadron left its base in Tsingtao, China. The squadron, a crack gunnery built around the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, was led by Admiral Graf von Spee, probably the most innovative and daring commander of the imperial German Navy.
After the declaration of war, the East Asia squadron did exactly what former French and Russian strategists had imagined, and wreaked havoc on British trade in the Pacific for months. Eventually they crossed the Pacific and destroyed a small group of British cruisers off the South American coast at the Battle of Coronel. It was the worst defeat the Royal Navy had suffered in over a century.
But radio reports of British merchant ships captured or sunk allowed the admiralty to determine the location of the German forces as they crossed the Pacific and then passed Cape Horn.
The Royal Navy sent the battle cruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic. There, at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the German squadron was destroyed by the much more powerful and far-reaching cannons of the British battle cruisers. It was everything the battle cruiser was designed for, not only confirming Fischer's ships, but also his information-oriented strategy.
It was the flood mark for battle cruisers. Unfortunately for its reputation, the Royal Navy was then in a very different war from the type of battle cruiser for which it was designed. Unlike France and Russia, Germany had not opted for trading cruisers. Instead, they decided to challenge the British head-on and build their own fleet of battleships and battle cruisers.
These naval giants would eventually meet in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. This is where the British battlecruisers met their fate, and that's another battlecruiser story outside the scope of this article. However, what is in scope is the critical, almost crucial role that information played in this battle.
Collection picture from Wikimedia