Saturday, May 31, 2014

Battle of Jutland 98th anniversary today -- the World War I naval battle between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, off Denmark . . . hard-bought lessons from history not learned (as usual)

On May 31st 1916 . . . a century less two years, the Battle of Jutland was fought off Denmark, revealing grave weaknesses in both the British ships and systems for developing, leading, making decisions for and operating a navy. Most sadly and spectacularly, such was revealed when three British Battle-Cruisers blew up and sank when hit by German heavy shells, especially in the roofs of their turrets:


(Cf. a memoir by Alexander Grant, a Gunnery Warrant Officer on HMS Lion and afterwards Naval Captain; perhaps, the man who saved that ship from also blowing up spectacularly, largely due to unsafe handling of a fairly unstable double-base propellant, cordite -- nitrocellulose (= gun-cotton) + nitroglycerine (with 5% vaseline as stabiliser).  And some blackpowder was being used as an initiator, with a tendency to spill from the cloth bags used to contain the propellant for the shells . . . as can be seen in the video. [Apparently, cordite was relatively stable by comparison with blackpowder and there was a temptation to become careless with it especially in hopes of rapid firing to achieve gunnery domination. The British shells also seem to have been brittle and because they used relatively unstable picric acid rather than trinitrotoluene (TNT) tended to prematurely shatter and/or explode on impact instead of after penetrating the armour. This had been recognised c. 1908, but when the directorship of Ordnance changed over on its regular rotation, was not properly followed up until after Jutland. In the end, in the early phase of an encounter fight between Battle-Cruisers, the German ships dominated and had far more horrifically effective results. All of this points to the need to get things right, through systems that promote thoroughness and consistent excellence in socio-technical systems and organisations with a high technology component. Which, in today's clicks and bricks age, is essentially all organisations.])

Let us understand wider history also; here, how a needless arms race was triggered by a leader of a nation with which Britain had traditionally been friendly (indeed, the British Royal Family are German!), and how this then led to a re-alignment and to war, then this major naval clash. 

Who "won" has been debated for a century, to which it seems to me the final answer is, neither -- it should be rephrased as, who lost worse. The British lost more ships and men, but the Germans were unable to destroy a detached portion of the Grand Fleet, and resorted a second time to unlimited submarine warfare, leading to the United States going to war against them. Thus the stage was set further for 1917, in which Russia collapsed leading to the C20's dominating conflict with Communism. Even the Nazis who rose up in a defeated, resentful Germany, cast themselves as an alternative to the Bolsheviks of Russia. 

World War I was the war that everybody lost, and where the inadequacies of the peace settlement helped pave the way for an even worse round two, The Second World War.

Decades of war, conflict, mass-murdering totalitarianism and chaos therefore ensued, only ending in the collapse of Communism as a global threat, at the turn of the 1990's. And, believe it or not, we are again echoing similar patterns in Europe -- the Ukraine -- as well as in the Middle East and elsewhere. Iran's grab for nuclear weapons while being led by a dangerously fanatical regime and sitting on one of the top global trade choke-points -- the Straights of Hormuz that can choke off much of the flow of ME oil, is especially troubling. The first lesson of history is that we refuse to learn from it. END