The Royal Navy in 1939: On the Track of a Paper Tiger


Looking at the Royal Navy order of battle on the eve of war, it looks like a pre-eminent naval power, no longer dwarfing its rivals but certainly not outmatched by them. But beneath the numbers and classifications, the royal oak was rotting from within. British aircraft carriers were conceived as reconnaissance platforms, not strike platforms, their handful of new battleships were functionally inferior in armament, mechanical reliability and gunnery method to those on the continent, let alone US and Japanese production, their elegant six-inch cruisers outgunned by the eight-inch cruisers and pocket battleships of other navies, and their escort force woefully insufficient in anti-submarine and anti-air roles even after two decades.

On the eve of the Second World War, Britain’s Navy faced an escalating deployment crisis. Even as the defeat of France approached, the British Cabinet persisted in trying to persuade Italy to adopt a neutral position. When France fell…

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14 thoughts on “The Royal Navy in 1939: On the Track of a Paper Tiger

  1. I disagree with this author’s conclusions that the US has the ability to fix the problem.

    The defense industry is increasingly entrenched into the procurement process and in some ways, now drives foreign policy (exports, wars, etc). Compounding all of this, it has grown fat on decades of very high defense spending. To lower the defense budget today is almost politically impossible in the US, particularly given how reactionary the political right has become.

    It is true that the US has numerical superiority, but what else? it is increasingly saddled with expensive weapons, an organizational culture that is very 2nd generation warfare oriented, and officers that rose not out of ability, but politics.


    1. United States have the ability (resources) to fix the problem, but if they do not have the will, ability will be for nothing. And I don’t see them having will anytime soon, for politicians are in corporations’ yoke and democracy is dead.

      British Empire, on the other hand, was spent by two world wars, and no matter what or how it did, it could not survive.


      1. Re-reading his article, yes, I’m inclined to agree that resources are available. They are available to the point that they are bankrupting the rest of US society. But it’s futile even with the resources because the political will is simply not there.

        It’s funny though listening to the political right in the US insist that a stagnant military budget would lead to disaster. I presume that the military industrial complex cannot survive without perpetually increasing budgets? The US military is awash in money. But it will only lead to more expensive, ineffective weapons.

        In terms of pressures, there’s the War on Terror as he’s discussed. That may have cost over $5 trillion USD. But there’s also the fact that the US has pursued neoliberal economics. It was “worked” spectacularly well for the top 0.1%, but not so well for everyone else. The thing is, by concentrating wealth in so few hands, there is less wealth overall. I suppose the rich have decided that being a weaker, poor nation is an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for themselves gobbling up all of the wealth.


      2. Point is this:
        “Unlike Britain, the United States is in a position to prioritise its global commitments, and its spending priorities- and now is the time.”

        With two world wars and a globe-stretching empire, Great Britain simply had to have the navy capable of patrolling and defending it. Due to being an island nation, UK could ill afford to lose ability to exercise naval superiority in at least European theatre, and preferably the world. But modern-day United States have no enemies that will try to blockade it with navy – those that can don’t want to, those that want to can’t – and have far more homogenous territory with far smaller coastline relative to the area. As a result, United States – unlike the 1910s-1940s British Empire – are in position to pick and choose what will they do with their navy, and how large navy will be. They could easily reduce size of navy and spending on it, if only could they bring their own defense industry under control.


      3. I order to fix the problem, which would require “us” to simultaneously tackle the myriad of other problems since they are interconnected, it would require a revolution in the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1776.

        Thank you for posting that article. bookmarked to my favorites. Pretty sobering to think about.


  2. A more accurate comparison then would be the US today with the British Empire in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are in far more similar positions.

    In terms of absolute power, there are similarities:

    The UK was on the verge of being eclipsed by the rapidly growing US economy, just as China is about to eclipse the US today.
    In absolute terms, the Royal Navy maintained the largest navy in the world and a massive colonial empire.
    Many of the problems of the UK were self-inflicted, most notably the rivalry festered with Germany. Certainly Kaiser Wilhelm II made a variety of mistakes too, but the British made some mistakes that allowed their relative decline and Germany to make relative gains. This would ultimately end up help set the stage for WWI.
    The UK needed its military power to run its empire. I suppose the US does too. The empire was essentially exploitative. The colonies, the working class in the UK, all served the very wealthy.
    The UK was at that point, the dominant empire, controlling about 1/4 of all resources. Both Germany and the US made rapid relative gains though.

    At the time, the UK did have the resources to make decisions that would have had huge consequences. It’s inability to do so helped seal its fate.


  3. Slightlly off topic, Brazil signed the deal for 36 Gripen E/F (28 E and 8 F) for 5,44 billion dollars, approximately 4.2 billion euro. This includes technology transfer to Brazil to become a co-producer and be capable to develop the F version on their own. (Sweden doesn’t need the F version) as well as spare parts, engines and weapons. Still the cost comes to about 150 million dollars per aircraft. What do you guys think? Is the cost of the Gripen spiking with the NG?


    1. “Is the cost of the Gripen spiking with the NG?”

      Probably. Gripen C costs 45 million USD unit flyaway, and I can definetly see Gripen E costing 70-80 million USD unit flyaway.

      As for the cost you quoted, it includes weapons, spare parts and supplies… typically, cost paid per each aircraft bought in such deals is twice the cost of the aircraft itself.


      1. We’d need the costs that Sweden is quoting before we can come to a final conclusion.

        Heck, we need the specs altogether for the NG version as they are still under development.

        Did the weight gain leave this as a medium weight multirole vs a lightweight single role?
        Fuel fraction; is it above 0.30?
        Maximum cruise speed?
        Estimate for wing loading, transient performance, and a look at the new aerodynamics?

        My gut feeling tells me that there is going to be a considerable raise in the cost. The question is, does the new capability justify it?


      2. @Chris

        From what I heard about the NG, despite the increase in maximum take-off weight, payload and fuel the empty weight will be about 1 ton lower then Gripen C/D because of using Carbon Nanotubes for structure, so it will stil be a light aircraft. As for fuel fraction what I read initially was that fuel carried was supposed to be 40% more so that might push fuel fraction towards 0,4.


      3. Still even with empty weight comparable to Gripen C an increase of carried fuel by 40% is a significant increase in Fuel fraction especially if one takes into account that the payload will probably be the same (as it’s not dependent solely on engine power but also on wings resistance, which will probably remain the same.)


      4. I think we should wait for the final specs and air frame before making a judgement.

        Still, I am expecting considerable improvements in performance.


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