- Feasey, Geoff
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Conversation with the President a few months ago produced a suggestion to air a hobby horse of mine in the Review, namely that technology tends to be a neglected dimension when naval history is written and that even when it is discussed the facts are rarely presented “warts and all”. The shortcomings of the decision making processes by which new technologies enter service, and the evidence that our attitudes to new technologies when they enter service sometimes prevent us getting the best out of them, are rarely exposed as fully as they ought to be.
When I began to think about writing the article, I realised that virtually all the evidence of which I was aware related to the RN. That is not too surprising after thirty one years in that navy and only six in the RAN. There are, however, two significant factors linking the two streams of experience: the use by the RAN of ships and systems developed for the RN, and the adoption by the RAN of so much of the RN ethos. Furthermore, the lessons of history usually help us to think about our current situation whatever the origin of the lesson. So I decided to persevere, to write about the RN experience and to appeal to the RAN readers of the Review to contribute their own experience and thought to assessing to what extent the lessons of these fragments of technological history apply to the RAN.
Why should the Review readers bother? Because some of them will share the belief that those who fail to learn from history are destined to re-live it, mistakes and all. Because reflection on what has gone wrong in the past may make it easier for us to see where, today, we are in danger of making the wrong decisions, or of being slow to adopt new ideas or to adapt to changing situations. And because the many different aspects of naval life cannot be considered in isolation: our officer selection and training procedures, for example, may affect attitudes to the introduction of new technology decades later.
A ‘warts and all’ approach
Many, perhaps most, articles on naval history seem somewhat myopic to technical readers. The exploits of Flag and Commanding Officers are recorded. The tactics, and sometimes even strategies, of battles are analysed. Heroic actions are, quite rightly, lauded. But only rarely do works of naval history place as much emphasis on the technical as on the tactical, as much on the failings of the machines as on the valour of men and women. During hostilities this myopia is called censorship and it is understandable, except perhaps to sections of the modern media. To publicise the failure of equipment or the faults of commanders when reporting “how goes the battle” could demoralise our own forces, distress their families and give the enemy cause to rejoice and exploit. But in peace, we should write our own bits of history “warts and all” so that lessons learnt are never forgotten. Surely our men and women deserve no less? Has the technical heritage from the other side of the world been so bad that we should devote precious time to studying it? Quite bad enough from the first half of the last century to recent times to give food for thought, I believe.
In his book “The Blunted Sword”, David Devine analysed Admiralty decision making on the new technologies presented to their Lordships. From their well-known 1828 decision to “discourage the introduction of steam” through the iron hulled ship, the breech loading gun with its rifled barrel, explosive shells, turret mounted guns, propeller propulsion instead of paddles, to the turbines versus reciprocating engines dispute at the turn of the century, and the development of the modern submarine soon after, there was scarcely a decision which was made correctly and in timely fashion. When eventually introduced, new technologies were not always popular. Although most of us are well aware of the RN’s 19th century aversion to steam propulsion and the strange men who understood it, some of us might be tempted to assume that gunnery was always one of the navy’s favoured and most important capabilities. Haven’t we all heard Gunnery Officers telling us so? It was not so in the experience of Admiral Sir Percy Scott, known to many as the father of modern gunnery in the RN, when he was Commander of HMS Duke of Edinburgh, probably around the turn of the century. Gunnery, like steam, tended to dirty the decks:
“So we gave up instruction in gunnery, spent money on enamel paint, burnished up every bit of brightwork on board, and soon got the reputation of being a very smart ship.”