2. The Menace of War & Threat of Invasion

“There are two ways in which England may be afflicted. The one by invasion - - - the other by impeachment of our trades.”
A History of the World, Sir Walter Raleigh, 1614.

The diplomatic manoeuvrings which followed the assassination of Emperor Franz Joseph on 28 June, 1914, have been well documented. It was not at all certain that Britain would join France and Russia in resisting the Central Powers until the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, of which we were a guarantor, forced the Government’s hand. In March, 1914, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had announced that, purely as an economy measure, the usual Annual Summer Manoeuvres - normally carried out by the 1st Fleet (the ships in “full commission”) and the 2nd Fleet (the ships “in active commission” whose nucleus crews were brought up to full complement for the occasion)) - would be cancelled and he told the House that instead a Royal Review would be held at Spithead on 17 and 18 July, the main event being preceded by a trial mobilisation of the 3rd Fleet (whose ships were “in reserve commission”) followed by a few days “Exercises”. Thus it was that as the European situation worsened a huge British Fleet of over 400 vessels, ranging in size from the massive battleship Iron Duke to the tiny TB1, complete with newly fitted wireless and a full crew, was concentrated, adventitiously, at Spithead - “the greatest assemblage of naval power ever witnessed in the history of the world” as the First Lord described it (1) - but in such a way, the plans having been made so long beforehand, that our future allies could not see the gathering as a sign of a commitment to their cause nor could our future enemies claim that a sudden aggressive gesture had been made.

The 3rd Fleet included 2 squadrons of pre-Dreadnought battleships and 5 squadrons of old cruisers which it was thought would be of some use in war and the practice mobilisation required that the men of the Royal Fleet Reserve (pensioners under 50 years of age and sailors who were paid a retainer after serving their time) should be summoned to man them. The Reserves could only be called out officially by Royal Proclamation and, as the government was unwilling to authorise this, in case it was seen as a threat, the men of the Royal Fleet Reserve were “invited to attend”. Surprisingly, perhaps, 20,000 ratings responded, reported at one of the 3 manning ports, drew their kits, joined the ships to which they had been allocated and sailed away to join the vessels of the 1st and 2nd Fleets at Spithead. At this time officers were appointed to the ships of the 2nd and 3rd Fleets “as convenient, and not to their true war stations” (2) and this was probably he reason why Mate Hanna did not join TB1 until the Royal Review had been concluded.

The King, delayed by the Irish crisis, arrived in Portsmouth on 18 July where he boarded the Royal Yacht which then steamed up and down between the long lines of ships. After the 2 days of exercises in which TB1 participated, the sovereign stood on the bridge of the Victoria and Albert, stationed off the Nab, to take the salute as the whole of his Fleet in Home Waters steamed past him at 15 knots - a manoeuvre which took 6 hours to complete ! TB1, like most of the other ships of the 2nd and 3rd Fleets, then returned to her Home Port where her “balance crew” was discharged, but the powerful 1st.Fleet steamed to Portland where it was due to remain until 7 a.m. on Monday, 27 July before dispersing. On Sunday, 26 July, Prince Louis of Battenberg, First Sea Lord, was sitting alone in his office in an almost deserted Admiralty (First Lord Churchill had gone to Cromer to join his family for the weekend) when he was informed that Austria had rejected a Serbian reply to an ultimatum and, recognising immediately what a serious situation this decision would produce, he ordered the ships at Portland to “stand fast” and “remain concentrated”; also the vessels of the 2nd Fleet were instructed to remain at their Home Ports in proximity to their “balance crews”. On 28 July, as has been described, TB1 and her flotilla mates came to full complement once more and 3 days later there was a most significant development in a rapidly worsening situation when the 36 battleships, 4 battle cruisers, 44 cruisers and 94 destroyers of the force which would soon become known as the Grand Fleet left Portland, first steering southwest to mislead any watching spies, before altering course to pass through the English Channel as night fell en route to Scapa Flow “bearing with them into the broad waters of the North the safeguard of considerable affairs”.(3)

The emergence of Germany as naval and imperial rival, and a possible foe, early in the 20th century posed a number of new problems for the Admiralty. Only in the Dutch wars of the 17th.century had we faced an enemy based north of the Dover Straits and, consequently, the main naval bases and major military defences were positioned along the southern and western shores of the country. Now we had, facing the new threat:

“a long stretch of coast dotted with vulnerable commercial ports but without a single Fleet base of the first order, except Chatham, which owing to navigational difficulties was incapable of being adapted to modern war conditions.” (4)

As early as 1904 consideration was given to the creation of a major naval base on the East coast . Should the new establishment be created in the Humber, in the Firth of Forth, in the Cromarty Firth or in Scapa Flow.? Each of these locations had their economic and geographical advantages and disadvantages but Rosyth was chosen for the new development despite the view of the First Sea Lord that the harbour was too far from the sea and that the Fleet would be trapped if the Forth Bridge was destroyed by shellfire or sabotage. However, as the years passed and the size of ships and Fleets increased and the range of the much feared submarine extended, naval opinion began to favour a move north and by 1912 Cromarty was being recommended as the future base for the main Fleet with Scapa Flow to be used temporarily if war threatened. Despite all the discussions at the Admiralty and between the services (the Army was responsible for creating and garrisoning the land defences of ports) Rosyth remained officially the future site of the Grand Fleet’s main base as war approached, although very little preparatory work had been done there to prepare the port for its important role. Unbelievably, it was only as the Fleet was steaming north on 29 July, 1914, that a conference at the Admiralty decided that Scapa Flow, that vast tract of water 10 miles long and 8 miles wide, “so big that it could have housed all the navies of the world in the great days of sea power” (5) should become the Grand Fleet’s permanent wartime home although at that time it was completely open to submarine attack and the only land defences were those provided by local territorial artillery units.

Apart from the erroneous belief that Scapa Flow was beyond the reach of the U-Boat there was another reason, resulting from a major shift in the strategy adopted by the Royal Navy, which gave this anchorage a new importance. For centuries the policy of the Admiralty had been to mount a “close blockade” of the enemy’s principal ports immediately war was declared thus confining his ships to harbour unless they were to be risked in a major confrontation. Until 1912 this was the tactic intended to be used against Germany, if she became a foe, with Heligoland Bight and its associated bases being blockaded instead of Brest or Toulon. But as the torpedo, the mine and the submarine emerged as dangerous, if largely untested, weapons the mounting of a “close blockade “ came to be seen as a hazardous affair. Nevertheless it was essential that the High Seas Fleet should be prevented from breaking out of the North Sea and, vanishing into the vast oceans, set about destroying our supply lines which stretched across the world.

The North Sea

The North Sea has 2 exits, the Dover Straits and the stretch of water between the north of Scotland and the southern coast of Norway and the new naval plan was to set up “a distant blockade” (6) to control these outlets. To block the Straits of Dover, only 20 miles across at their narrowest point, was simple enough using torpedo carrying craft and mines, with back-up being provided by the Channel Fleet, 19 old pre-dreadnought battleships stationed at Portland. However, to close the 200 mile wide northern exit was a different matter and here patrolling cruisers were to be supported by the powerful presence of the Grand Fleet operating from the strategically positioned base at Scapa Flow:

“So long as Admiral Jellicoe and the Dover Patrol held firm, the German fleet in all its tremendous strength was literally locked out of the world. The Hohenzollern dreadnoughts could not place themselves upon a single trade route, could not touch the hem of a single oversea Dominion, could not interfere with the imports on which the British Isles depended, could not stem the swelling stream of warriors who came from every land and clime to save the cause of civilisation. (7)

However, the adoption of the policy of the “distant blockade” had the consequence of opening the whole of the East coast to the possibility of a military raid, or indeed of a full scale invasion, which, so some believed, could be completed before the Grand Fleet, steaming hard from the north, could intervene.

During the centuries in which France was our actual or putative enemy there were several invasion scares which often frightened the landsman more than the seaman for the Navy’s usual lofty view was that expressed by Earl St.Vincent to some nervous fellow peers in 1803: “I do not say they cannot come, My Lords, I only say they cannot come by sea”. When the question of an invasion of these shores was examined afresh when Germany began to be seen as our principal foe in any future conflict, the opinion of the majority of senior naval officers (the “Blue Water” school) remained that of St.Vincent (8) although they were forced to admit that, with a 600 mile long eastern coastline to defend, it was possible that a small army could be put ashore before a naval squadron could be marshalled to deal with the invasion fleet. But this fact was held to be of little consequence for a force of limited size landing on our soil could be easily dealt with and, in any case, would “wither on the vine” once our fleet had arrived offshore and destroyed the enemy’s support ships. The opposing view was that put by the “Bolt from the Blue” school, mainly composed of army officers led by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, which believed that if our fleet was enticed away, and kept away, from a chosen spot on the east coast then a very large enemy contingent indeed could be landed and that, therefore, the War Office should raise, train and maintain a substantial anti-invasion force. Of course, Roberts was a supporter of conscription and it suited his general view to exaggerate the risk of a German attack across the North Sea. With the example of the Japanese assault on Port Arthur in 1904 in mind Roberts suggested that a sudden onslaught against our coastal defences would precede a declaration of war - hence the name given to the school of thought of which he was the leader.

The general public, troubled by the increasing tensions between Britain and Germany, supported the views of the “Bolt from the Blue” school in the main and the fear of a possible invasion was stimulated by the publication of Erskine Childers’ best selling novel “The Riddle of the Sands” in 1903. But what was merely a glowing ember was fanned into a raging fire 3 years later with the appearance of William Le Quex’s inflammatory novel “The Invasion of 1910”. Le Quex was hired by Lord Northcliffe to promulgate Robert’s ideas and, more importantly, to boost the circulation of the Daily Mail and his book was launched with posters proclaiming an imminent invasion held aloft by men in Prussian uniform wearing spiked helmets. More provocative material was to be presented with the arrival at Wyndham’s theatre in 1909 of Guy de Maurier’s play “the Englishman’s Home”:

“The play played to packed houses for eighteen months. The sight, even on stage, of foreign soldiers in spiked helmets trampling across an English lawn and bursting through French windows into the parlor of an English house was too much for many a fervent theatergoer. The army set up a special recruiting station in the lobby of the theater so that fiery young men, erupting out of the stalls once the curtain had fallen, could volunteer on the spot for Haldane’s Territorial Army.” (9)

An invasion scare swept the land. Had not Le Quex written that there were 6,500 spies in he country? ; did not the trusted “Fighting Bob” Roberts, V.C., hold that there were thousands of trained German soldiers living incognito in England ? In July, 1909, Louis Bleriot crossed the channel in his flimsy monoplane, winning the £1,000 offered by Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, to the first man to perform this feat in powered flight. His Lordship’s paper announced “ England is no longer an island” and the feeling began to grow that perhaps the Royal Navy would not be for much longer the staunch defence against invasion that it had been for centuries. Also, at about this time, Germany was building her prototype Zeppelins and their appearance added to the fear that was spreading throughout the land. The capabilities of these early airships were much exaggerated and sightings of phantom craft performing impossible feats were reported from unlikely places all over Britain. As it was with the UFOs of more recent times, there were those who claimed to have witnessed Zeppelins landing in remote areas and to have chatted with their crews. Against this background the Government, the Admiralty and the War Office struggled to mount a rational debate about the possibility of invasion although clearly the vulnerable east coast presented an invitation to a determined enemy to mount a military raid if not a full scale invasion and countermeasures would have to be taken.

In 1907 an Invasion Sub Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence was established under the Chairmanship of Prime Minister Asquith but it received little cooperation from the Admiralty and it was left to Lord Roberts, a committee member and also chairman of the National Defence League, to suggest that a minimum of 70,000 soldiers could be landed in a surprise attack without interference. Remarkably, this figure, plucked from the air, became the official basis for anti-invasion planning.

In the Navy’s summer manoeuvres of 1912 a Blue Fleet, representing a German troop carrying force, attempted to outwit a Red Fleet which was ordered to intercept but, unfortunately, the rules of engagement were so artificial that the theorists of both the “Blue Water” and the “Bolt from the Blue” schools were able to claim that the results justified their views. Undaunted, the Admiralty pressed ahead in devising plans to thwart a German invasion but when these were tested in the manoeuvres of the following summer (during which Acting Mate Hanna commanded TB36 ) the results were so alarming that the First Lord called a halt to the operations on the 3rd.day “lest we might teach the Germans as well as ourselves.” (10)

The disappointing, if inconclusive, results of the Annual Manoeuvres of 1912 and 1913 would have been taken into account in the preparation of the overarching “War Book”, which set out in detail the steps to be taken by our forces across the world if war broke out, and this now demanded that the Port Defence Flotillas should be redeployed along the east coast and given a new mission if hostilities became inevitable. The 6th.Flotilla from Portsmouth was to be based in Dover (11), the 7th.Flotilla from Devonport in the Humber (which explains why TB1 anchored off Killingholme on 1 August, 1914), and the 8th and 9th. Flotillas from the Nore in the Tyne and Forth respectively, where they would be ready - there is a distinctly “kamikaze” air about this plan - to strike at the troopers and supply ships of an invasion fleet, doing their utmost to disrupt a landing and hold the ring until more powerful vessels arrived to deal with the escorting warships.

All the ships of the Patrol Flotillas, as they were now called, together with 6 boats of the 6th. Submarine Flotilla, fit only for coastal defence and based at Immingham, were to be placed under the control of an “Admiral of Patrols,” Rear Admiral Ballard who Hankey, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, regarded as “a man of great intellectual power and character”. (12) In August,1914, Ballard had under his command 8 light cruisers, 82 destroyers, 24 torpedo boats and 6 submarines, a force so constituted and positioned that it produced the claim that:

“For the first time in its history the nation possesses today a second line of naval defence - a mobile coastal defence - consisting of destroyers and submarines, stretching from the far North down the East Coast to Dover. This is an innovation - due to Lord Fisher’s policy - which has powerfully affected the home defence problem.” (13)

Of course, it has long been known that at no time in the war did the German Naval or Army staff even discuss the possibility of invading England or mounting an amphibious raid. Nevertheless, the long and weary hours, days, weeks and months spent by TB1, the other ships of the 7th Flotilla and all the vessels under Rear Admiral Ballard’s command, on “watch and ward” were not wasted for, as new and unexpected aspects of modern naval war were revealed, fresh tasks were to face them.


1. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
2. Julian S.Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.I.”
3. Winston S. Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
4. Julian S.Corbett.. “Naval Operations, Vol.I.”
5. Malcolm Brown and Patricia Meehan. “Scapa Flow.”
6. German pre-war naval strategy was based on the premise that the Royal Navy would institute a “close blockade” immediately war was declared and the Naval Staff planned to fill the Bight with minefields and marauding U-Boats. The establishment of a “distant blockade” came as a surprise and a disappointment.
7. Geoffrey Callender. “The Naval Side of British History”.
8. Not all senior naval officers subscribed automatically to the rather lofty and dismissive views of the Blue Water school. Capt. Richmond, Asst.Director of Naval Operations in 1913, wrote in his diary of his superiors: “Parrot -like they repeat that invasion is impossible but they do nothing to make it impossible.”
9. Robert K.Massie. “Dreadnought”.
10. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
11. The straits of Dover were of such importance and became so busy that the 6th.Flotilla became the nucleus of in independent command, the famous “Dover Patrol”.
12. It has been suggested that Ballard’s career did not flower as it should have because of his opposition to Churchill’s wildest schemes when working in the Naval Intelligence Branch.
13. Archibald Hurd. “The British Fleet in the Great War.”

1 comment:

  1. Lincoln Cathedral commemorated the anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 with a moving during which the lights were gradually dimmed, names were read out from war memorials around the county and poetry was read.