By Norman Friedman. Seaforth . 319pp ill. app. source notes glos. bibl. ind. ISBN 978-1-84415-701-3. £40
Many readers will be familiar with the name of Norman Friedman who is a well respected and prolific author of books about twentieth century naval materiel. Naval Firepower follows this pattern but, although the title is 'Naval Firepower', it is principally about naval Fire Control, from the beginning of the last century to the end of World War II.
At the start of this era it was anticipated that in a naval engagement ships would close and pound one another at short range. The merit of the big gun was seen as its destructive power, not its ability to project shells a long distance. The latter characteristic could not be exploited in any case because the then rudimentary means of aiming meant that hits could only be obtained at short range. Sir Percy Scott who did much to improve gunnery in the Royal Navy proved that, using his techniques, gunners could hit reliably at ranges of about 1,500 yards. When I served in HMS Vanguard, Britain's last battleship, the 15" guns (of World War 1 design) could engage the enemy at an effective range of 35,000 yards. Moreover, spotting the fall of shot, which had always been problematic, had now been resolved by a radar display which showed the position of the shell splashes in relation to the target. Hitherto, at long range, hits, and shell splashes beyond the target, had been difficult to see even if not obscured by smoke or poor visibility, and spotting by aircraft seldom proved practicable under action conditions.
Naval Firepower tells the story of how, with many faltering steps, Fire Control systems were developed to enable the potential range of the big gun to be exploited. It focuses principally upon the Royal Navy which by the end of the era was considered to have the best surface Fire Control system in the world (although unhappily the same was not true of its AA gunnery). Approximately half the book is devoted to explaining the Fire Control problem and the means developed within the Royal Navy to solve it; subsequent chapters are devoted to parallel efforts by the navies of the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the Soviet Union, with a final short chapter on propellants, guns, shells and armour.
Prior to and during World War 1, it was anticipated that opposing fleets would steam in line ahead and exchange broadsides. The alternative to steaming in line ahead, of splitting up and fighting in divisions or individually, was considered too risky because of the problems, given the technology of the day, of exercising command and distinguishing friend from foe. As it was, Jellicoe complained that according to the plot in his flagship some of his ships were moving at 3 knots, and some at 60 knots; even in World War II the US Navy experienced costly 'friendly fire' incidents as a result of misidentification caused by 'kinks' in the line.
Given these tactics, it became imperative to solve the fire control problem because of the advent, just before the turn of the twentieth century, of the gyro-controlled torpedo. This exposed fleets, when within gunfire range, to torpedoes launched by the enemy line. Initially, torpedo range was less than 4000 yards, but it increased to 10,000 and then 15,000 yards and eventually in the case of the Japanese Long Lance torpedo in World War II to 20,000-40,000 yards.
The naval Fire Control problem is complicated by many factors (too many to even outline here) but it is obviously necessary not only to know the range and bearing of the target but the rate at which these are changing with time because, given the time of flight of the shell, which at long range can be a minute or more, it is necessary to aim at where the ship will be rather than where it is.
Moreover, the firing ship will be rolling and yawing, throwing off the aim of the guns unless steps are taken to correct for this. Early attempts at solving the Fire Control problem seem to have been extraordinarily naive. Initially it was assumed that, for two ships on steady courses at steady speeds range rate is constant, whereas a moment's thought shows that this cannot be true. From these crude beginnings complex electro-mechanical computers were developed which pushed the technology to the limit.
Two approaches to the problem developed, the 'analytic' and 'synthetic'. The 'analytic' plotted visual observations of enemy range and bearing, and from these assessed rates. Use was made of mechanical devices e.g. plotting tables and range clocks, the latter being set to the range rate and adjusted if necessary in the light of further observations, but these depended upon continual update of the target's relative position and rates. The 'synthetic' approach attempted to develop an electro-mechanical analogue of the real life situation. If the initial inputs were set correctly (and they could be adjusted in the light of discrepancies between prediction and observation) this would keep the aim point at the target's future position.
Before and during World War 1, there were proponents advocating the advantages of their respective systems. The principal advocate for the 'analytic' was Dreyer, a naval officer, and for the 'synthetic', Arthur Pollen, a civilian who became interested in naval fire control, and used the resources of his company to manufacture a system which he claimed was helm free i.e. the firing ship could manoeuvre while maintaining a Fire Control solution. This could give the firing ship a huge advantage over the enemy since it could manoeuvre to throw off the enemy's aim while maintaining its own, whereas the Dreyer system would have to determine new rates. Further, in principle, the Pollen (or Argo) system could maintain the aim point when the target was obscured by smoke or poor visibility. The Admiralty trialled both systems extensively and, although features of Pollen's system were adopted, in the Grand Fleet at Jutland the analytic approach predominated.
This led Pollen's son Anthony to write a passionately argued book ("The Great Gunnery Scandal ~ The Mystery of Jutland", Collins 1980) in which he claimed that if only his father's invention had been adopted the outcome of the battle would have been different and much more favourable to the Royal Navy. In fact there was not a significant difference in the number of hits obtained by the British and the Germans. The dramatic losses the Royal Navy experienced at Jutland were caused by dangerous practices, in breach of the regulations, in the supply of ammunition to the guns. Adopted in the interests of speeding the rate of fire they could, and in a number of cases did, result in the loss of capital ships to a single hit.
Anthony Pollen's book was followed by Professor Jon Sumida's "In Defence of Naval Supremacy ~ Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy 1889 -1914", (Unwin Hyman 1989). Inter alia this considered the Fire Control problem and Pollen's contribution. Sumida concluded that:
"Between 1905 and 1912 Arthur Hungerford Pollen developed a wholly original system of fire control, which was designed to use various data to compute the elevation and deflection settings on gunsights in a manner that took account of the relative motion of the firing ship and target, even when the range was changing at a rate that was itself changing or when the firing ship was altering course and speed......[but]....Pollen was incorrect to believe that the development of his instruments would reduce the difficulty of hitting a moving target from a moving ship to that of hitting a stationary target from a stationary ship. ......
It cannot be doubted, however, that full Admiralty cooperation with Pollen's efforts would have resulted in the putting into service of a fire control system that was far superior to that which was actually adopted by the Royal Navy or possessed by foreign fleets. The use of range-finders with longer base lengths and better optics, which were available, together with the gyro-mounting, and the adoption of both automatic rate and true-course plotters-which in effect was what was done after the war-and of the Pollen calculator in its final form, the Argo Clock Mark V, almost certainly would have enabled British ships to hit more often-perhaps even much more often-when range and bearing rates were high and changing."
Friedman asks "whether the Admiralty decision against Pollen in 1912 led directly to disappointing British gunnery performance during World War I" but in "Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland ~ The Question of Fire Control", (Routledge 1st 2005), John Brooks contested the implication that Jutland would have had a better outcome if Pollen's system had been adopted. He gives a detailed analysis of the Fire Control problem and of the Dreyer and Pollen solutions and argues that the latter would not have improved the shooting at Jutland. Indeed "........if Beatty's battlecruisers had been equipped with the complete Pollen system........they would have hit even later and less often than was actually the case." (Brooks p288). Nonetheless, the synthetic approach proved the way forward.
For those who wish to obtain a detailed understanding of the Fire Control problem and approaches to its solution, I would recommend both Sumida and Brooks and especially the latter in preference to Friedman, but this is not to say that Naval Firepower is superfluous. It contains a huge amount of information both pictorial and textual. It also considers systems in all the major navies, but I did find it less closely and lucidly argued than either Sumida or Brooks. The mass of information is less well digested and there are apparent non sequiturs and statements which are difficult to reconcile. For example, in discussing the Bismarck's shooting Friedman says that she "generally.......straddled on the first ladder." He then continues on the same page to analyse her shooting throughout her short life and shows that, except for the opening action against Hood her ".......shooting was distinctly poor.'' These statements may not be irreconcilable but some explanation is needed. Similarly, there are other passages which are likely to leave the reader confused.
The book is attractively produced and well illustrated with long explanatory captions identifying the features in the photographs. There are also lengthy source notes containing much additional material. Recommended, with the reservations expressed above.
Reviewed by Roger Richardson-Bunbury
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