The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship in the Interwar Period: An Operational Perspective Review

Updated on June 22, 2018

There was once a time when the battleship was the most powerful, most survivable, and largest warship afloat, the arbiter of naval power and war on the high seas. Although it has only been a few decades since the last battleship, the Iowa-class, was retired by the United States Navy, the battleship had long since fallen out of favor, with the final service years of the Iowa-class being as glorified Tomahawk cruise missile carriers and naval bombardment ships instead of real warships. The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship in the Interwar Period: An Operational Perspective by Joseph Moretz, looks at the period when the battleship and the battlecruiser (its faster, but in the Royal Navy at least, more lightly armored counterpart) existed at the same time with the ship which would ultimately replace them, the aircraft carrier. What the author in the volume aims to do is to focus on the principle that the Royal Navy, the naval forces of the United Kingdom, was not excessively conservative in retaining the battleship, that the problems it experienced were not caused by naval treaties but rather by financial limitations, and that the Royal Navy vigorously conducted training and exercises which attempted to respond to a changing international situation. It does this by both looking at the capital ships in design and naval treaty aspect, their general characteristics, and then their training and operational usage. Unfortunately the book fails to live up to its objectives and brings very little new information to the subject, is insufficiently specialized to the subject, and in general is a bland and unoriginal book.


The introduction lays out that there has been no book specialized on the subject of the capital ship itself in the Royal Navy in the Interwar. Instead of simply looking at a debate between air power and naval power, the author wishes to examine how the navy changed in how it saw the characteristics of capital ships, how it wished to use them, what their threats were, and what their objectives were. This was a different question than simply the sea-saw battle between the two, as some officers changed their views over time and had different beliefs concerning the utilization of the capital ship itself and its utility. The book will do so principally at a tactical and operational level, with some mention of strategic naval policy to provide necessary context, using material provided from Royal navy personnel and observations on the fleet to pass judgement.

Chapter 1, "The Experience of the Late War", covers various aspects of war-time operations, such as mines, torpedoes, aircraft, and of course the performance of surface ships as found at Jutland, and their deficiencies there. This resulted in a wide range of efforts to improve efficiency, including changes to night-fighting techniques, command and control, torpedo avoidance, maneuver, gunnery, and ship protection.

The British battlecruiser Invincible blowing up at the Battle of Jutland, the only large-scale confrontation between capital ships in the Great War, and one which would be an important part of British naval thought for decades to come.
The British battlecruiser Invincible blowing up at the Battle of Jutland, the only large-scale confrontation between capital ships in the Great War, and one which would be an important part of British naval thought for decades to come.

Chapter 2, "Imperial Naval Policy and the Capital Ship Controversy', deals with two principal subjects that the Royal Navy confronted post war: Imperial naval strategy with its relationships to the British Dominions, and the rivalry with the Royal Air Force which was a threat to the Royal Navy's role and function. The first was that the Royal Navy desired to have an imperial fleet which would be composed of all of the constituent parts of the British Empire in a centrally controlled force, while the Dominions found this impossible and opted for local fleets. Secondly, the Royal Air Force succeeded in gaining control over the Royal Navy's aircraft, meaning that the fleet air arm was an Air Force, not Navy, operation. The Navy was deeply opposed to this but for various reasons found it impossible to restore its control until the mid 1930s.

Chapter 3, "The Influence of Arms Control and the Treasury on the Interwar Royal Navy" deals with the Royal Navy's post war situation and the naval armaments limitations occasioned by the Washington Naval Treaty. There, the Royal Navy agreed to tonnage limitations, and numerical superiority to the United States Navy, as well as qualitative limitations on its capital ships - with the 35,000 ton limitation for its ships in their maximum size meaning that it was effectively forced to give up the battlecruiser, as a ship with a balanced design with 16 inch guns and 30 knots+ speed could not be built at 35,000 tons. Further attempts to constrain naval spending largely foundered on the various nations' interests for qualitative or quantitative power, although the RN did design a wide range of capital ships down to 22,000 tons which could have been built to these treaties, which they never were, although the reduction of gun caliber to 14 inch from the London Naval Treaty did abortively pass, mostly to the detriment of the Royal Navy for the latter. However, the author takes the position that in general the treaties were positive for the Royal Navy given that it would have been unable to afford more expenses anyway, although it did result in some genuine decreases in efficiency and the RN was particularly challenged by still meeting its world wide commitments with its limited number of ships. The main problem for the Royal Navy was not the naval treaties, which served British interests, but the poor funding of the Royal Navy which allowed its readiness to decline.

The Washington Naval Treaty led to limitations on the Royal Navy's capital ship fleet, but it had already greatly reduced it in response to financial problems.
The Washington Naval Treaty led to limitations on the Royal Navy's capital ship fleet, but it had already greatly reduced it in response to financial problems.

Chapter 4, "The Evolution of the Capital Ship", concerns technological aspects of the capital ship, starting with classifying the difference and results of the battlecruiser vs. battleship, then aspects such as armament, principally focusing on the guns of ships and therein their primary, secondary guns and their various performance and operational characteristics, as well as the tertiary armament and then the torpedoes. This is followed by plotting (placing the enemy's location) and fire control, as well as aircraft, and then proceeds to protection with defense against enemy naval artillery and the resultant operational aspects, defense against underwater attacks of both mines and submarines, and then air attack. Gas attack was one aspect which influenced the Royal Navy to continue to believe in the battleship, as they could be more easily protected against gas than carriers. Overall, the RN seems to have believed in their ability to respond to meet new threats, even if they were serious ones, but that any improvement would be a quantitative rather than groundbreaking one, and that their ability to adapt was limited by naval treaties.

Chapter 5, "British Interwar Naval Strategy", first starts by discussing various naval strategies used, such as fleet in being or the guerre de course, before discussing British naval strategy. The role of the capital ship in the British estimation was to provide a concentration of power which would enable them to defeat opposing enemy fleets. In doing so, the way would be clear to keep open their own lines of communication while denying them to the enemy. A wide array of different wars and operations were studied in formulating British doctrine, although it did place its greatest emphasis on the First World War and its battle of Jutland. British naval strategy in the event of war with the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Japan are discussed. British strategy varied between them, adopting various naval objectives to match the situation, although sometimes they were plagued by poor coordination or misunderstandings with the other military branches, or overreach.

Singapore naval base was the hinge of British naval strategy in the Far East: its loss to Japan in 1942 was a decisive Japanese victory and a crippling defeat for the British Empire.
Singapore naval base was the hinge of British naval strategy in the Far East: its loss to Japan in 1942 was a decisive Japanese victory and a crippling defeat for the British Empire.

Chapter 6, "The Operational Employment of the Capital Ship", deals with the organization of the navy, followed by how capital ships fulfilled a variety of peacetime operational roles. This includes their usage for "showing the flag" in peacetime as well as for peaceful naval demonstrations, surveillance, helping civil authorities dealing with maintaining infrastructure (such as filling in for strikers in civil disturbances or manning gunboats, or simply impressing colonials into submission), and deterrence against enemies. It is the author's claim that capital ships proved very flexible in such a role.

Chapter 7, "The Development of Battlefleet Tactics", commences with an overview of training and battle simulation in the Royal Navy, followed by the training, equipment, and doctrine of artillery and torpedoes. Actual fleet doctrine is followed up, such as night fighting, experience in testing long range fire, ship identification, reconnaissance (by both air and surface units), and how the fleet was to be organized for battle and then maneuvered during it. The exercises which the Royal Navy conducted are explained. Given the limited resources available to the Royal Navy and the conditions it was operating under, it had done its best to attempt to train and to prepare for the war, and the problems which emerged stemmed principally from these limitations.

Chapter 8, "Reconsideration", sums up the author's thoughts in seeing the capital ship being a continuing unit of value in the interwar, that the Royal Navy had valid reasons for its usage, and that it presented an innovative force which constantly adapted and trained throughout the period.

A number of appendixes and the bibliography follow.

British capital ships lined up for review at Spithead in 1924.
British capital ships lined up for review at Spithead in 1924.


Probably the greatest strength of the book is covering the operational aspects of the capital ship in the Interwar, which extended significantly beyond simply its role in wartime. Capital ships were used for showing the flag in foreign nations, to impressive (or frighten) colonial territories, to help restore or to maintain order, to function in surveillance, and other tasks. It shows that the ships were far from being single purpose, but rather extremely widespread in their operations. This is backed up by information about problems with training and manning them, and the problems with financial rigor brought to the fleet. Unlike other aspects of the book, this stays true to the focus on the capital ship, and it contains sufficient detail and breadth to make it useful. Certain elements of tactical doctrine, such as the focus on night fighting, are also useful and well done, although its actual tactical maneuver doctrine could have used additional elaboration and detail. Particularly, this would have been greatly helped by diagrams or depictions, of which the book has none, only a few depictions of battleships which are of doubtful utility to the overall book.

How the Royal Navy trained and conducted exercises is done at great expanse, although it does not discuss the institution, organization, and analysis that enabled them to actually make use of this information gained: in the United States navy for example, much has been written about the very methodical fashion in which the USN quantitatively examined how a fleet encounter would happen between itself and other navies, useful for both its doctrine and for ship design. Did the Royal Navy have anything like the United States Navy's quantitative examination of its battle line strength against any fleets, such as its potential performance against the Japanese main fleet during war? Nor is there anything about how the Royal Navy proceeded to disseminate and take advantage of the information that it did gain.

There are some things which are intriguing brought forwards by the book. For example, its discussion of chemical warfare, and in particular the chemical warfare appendix associated with it, is something which seems otherwise neglected in information about naval warfare to the era. Not all however, is rosy, as this does little justice to attempting to inform just what sort of chemical weapons and delivery systems were feared - was it in the context of gun-delivered shells, or conversely air-dropped bombs, that dangerous gases threatened Royal Navy ships? Were there particular navies that this was viewed as a threat from? How extensive were the chemical offensive stores - the book makes note of an extreme lack of high explosive shells for the Royal Navy's 16 inch guns of the Nelson-class, but what were ammunition supplies like for the chemical weapons? And while not strictly historical, it lacks a speculative aspect: how would the measures to deal with chemical warfare have stood up to the test of war, if once again the horror of poison gas was released?

Indeed, this problem happens constantly throughout, for there is very little quantitative information, and many glaring exceptions. When discussing changes in gunnery, it makes no real note of the improvements in the technology behind it, be it improved computing machines or radar. It discusses the superiority in American and Japanese long-range firepower, but not why, or how effective it might have proved in practice. When talking about anti-aircraft firepower it does not make any mention of how effective the Royal Navy saw its guns in a qualitative sense, their ranges, their expected deadliness and dangers of aircraft: the same can be applied to the secondary armament. Despite placing much emphasis on Singapore, the cruising range, resupply, and repair of the Royal Navy's ships receive very little overall focus. Cooperation with aircraft beyond reconnaissance and gunnery spotting, tactical formations, expected performance against the principal enemies, the introduction of radar, formations of ships, cooperation with other navies on the capital ship question (despite mentioning that information was shared with the United States navy), all of these lack entirely any presence in the book.

In addition, there are some strange arrangements in the book. This might be due to the electronic version of the book I had, but when verifying it against a Google version of the book it appeared similar for previous sections: in essence, certain parts really had very little, if anything to do at all, with their title. Thus the sub-section of Chapter 2, "The 1936 Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence: Investigation into the Vulnerability of the Capital Ship to Air Attack" provides no information about the 1936 Sub-Committee, only about some previous WW1 debate. I was deeply suspicious that this was due to my copy of the book, but given that it seemed to match up to google, then if so this seems rather dismally strange.

Most of all, for what is a book which is covering an era of meteoric technological change, the book reads static and unchanging. Without knowledge of the developments of the period, one would be hard pressed to understand that a revolution in naval affairs was underway, especially towards the end of this period. Indeed, there is little focus at all upon the later period of the 1930s. Perhaps this book would be better if it was less ambitious and simply tried to deal with the 1919-1933 era, and left the dramatic changes which occurred later asides. As it stands, the attempt to cover the entire period in a simple homogeneous block obscures any deeper understanding of its changes. While there are other books which cover technical aspects of ship design, there is nothing at all to note how the Royal Navy changed its thinking in design and protection of its capital ships throughout the period, with only some note of armament and propulsion provided. There is some information about reconstruction of ships, but even this is limited. The material about the relationship of the Royal Navy to the Royal Air Force feels perfunctory, like a man wandering old well trod paths, with little new brought to it, something already much overdone by the scouring of time.

The content of the book and its chapters indicate that the capital ship in of itself is something which is so tightly bound up in other elements of the Royal Navy and its strategy in the Interwar period, given its position as part of a combined arms force, that it to me seems like it might be impossible to conduct a study of the capital ship simply in isolation. Certainly I do not feel that the author did so, and that his history strayed far too much into serving for general Royal Navy affairs without really providing a holistic view of them, while simultaneously failing to treat the capital ship with sufficient detail or to set it into international context. This can be seen throughout, such as with its discussion on strategy, which while useful, only has the capital ship as being a marginal role involved: in fact, one sees much more reference to the aircraft carrier in the plans which the book informs to us, such as using aircraft attacks on Italy and France in hypothetical planning, and in any case, it is really a fleet, rather than capital ship discussion. It mentions that the Royal Navy was the navy least attached to the capital ship by the end of the Interwar, but provides little evidence to back up this assertion in looking at other navies. A shallow picture of one navy, without any evidence from other navies, limits the information that one has available greatly.

To my eyes, a general history of the Royal Navy for this period seems like it would be the better book than this one. The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship tries to focus on a specific element of the fleet, but the author himself admits that there are difficulties in attaining sufficient information. Thus while he does succeed in fulfilling his thesis, showing that the navy retained the capital ship for reasons other than conservatism, that the Royal Navy was not restricted by its treaties but rather by its financial problems, and he does tell about how the capital ship was employed during the wars, the ability of the book to illuminate and provide exhaustive information upon this specific section of the Royal Navy's fleet is absent. It is better to have a general history than to have this book, which only vaguely fulfills the task of being a history dedicated particularly to the capital ship, while simultaneously offering only some insights to the larger scheme of the Royal Navy. Although those interested in naval history from the Interwar and the Royal Navy might find it interesting, to me there are other and better books, instead of this one which is rather shallow and mediocre.

1 star for The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas


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