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To Obtain or Dispute Command of the Sea

Captain Anthony T. C. Cowden

“Command of the sea . . . means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or maritime purposes.”

Julian Corbett, Principles of Maritime Strategy[1]

With this sentence Corbett defines command of the sea—or “sea control,” as the U.S. Navy refers to it—and lays the foundation for all naval warfare. Corbett goes on to expand on the attributes of sea control[2]— observing that the pursuit of sea control by two warring parties necessarily results in the condition that command of the sea is in dispute, and that “it is this state of dispute with which naval strategy is most nearly concerned...”[3]Later, he discusses different strategies to gain and dispute sea control, a central part of that discussion focused on the contest between inferior and superior fleets.[4]

This essay is concerned with naval strategy associated with that contest between inferior and superior fleets, and how a historical example of such a campaign is relevant to challenges that the U.S. Navy increasingly faces today: fleet employment during the early part of the naval war in the North Sea during World War I.

The North Sea in World War I

By the late 19th century, the Royal Navy had been the dominant naval force in the world for nearly a century. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sought to change that—as succinctly summarized by Stephen Budiansky:

Wilhelm II had read [U.S. Navy Captain]Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power on History and was convinced that German greatness depended on control of the seas. “Germany,” the Kaiser declared in 1900, “must possess a battle fleet of such strength that even for the most powerful naval adversary a war would involve such great risks as to make that Power’s own supremacy doubtful.” Since launching its crash naval construction program in 1898, Germany had set more and more ambitious targets as it sought to challenge Britain’s supremacy, eventually reaching a mighty seagoing force of sixty battleships and battle cruisers. The German High Seas Fleet was conceived on pure Mahanian lines: a series of battle squadrons each built around a core of seven or eight of the huge battleships attended by flotillas of light cruisers and destroyers.[5]

The strategic purpose of the Imperial German Navy prior to World War I was not entirely clear. One argument was that it would act as a deterrent to war—convincing Britain that engaging in a land war with Germany in Europe would place their maritime empire at risk. Another argument is that Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, grand architect of the growing German navy, always planned on building a navy that could actually challenge the British fleet directly, not act solely as a deterrent. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle; a German Navy powerful enough to directly challenge the Royal Navy might very well serve as an effective deterrent to war.

Whatever the intent may have been, the mere existence of the Imperial Navy did not deter Britain from going to war with Germany in 1914. Furthermore, the Germans did not have an active plan for what to do when war came. The maritime campaign in the North Sea became a classic case of competition between a superior fleet—the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet — and the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet.

The concept of inferior and superior fleets was discussed at some length by Julian Corbett in his classic Principles of Naval Strategy. In general, the goal of the superior fleet is to destroy the inferior fleet, to remove it as a threat to the sea lines of communication, and to allow the superior fleet to operate in pursuit of its strategic objectives. Since most inferior fleets are not suicidal and will not willingly allow themselves to be destroyed, the challenge for the superior fleet is to entice the inferior fleet into battle on the superior fleet’s terms. The general idea is to create a pattern of behavior that the enemy must conform to in order to achieve some operational objective—in this case, the destruction of the inferior fleet. As John C. Wylie asserted, “The contestant who controls the pattern of the war has an estimable advantage.”[7]

The Superior Fleet

As the superior fleet in this contest, the principal strategic objective of the Royal Navy was to eliminate the threat that the High Seas Fleet posed to British control of the North Sea, and therefore German access to the world’s oceans. Should elements of the German fleet be able to reach the world’s oceans, they would be able to raid British shipping and starve the island nation, compelling it to sue for peace. To achieve its objective, the goal of the Royal Navy was to draw out the High Seas Fleet at a time and place where the Grand Fleet was superior and crush it.

Drawing the Inferior Fleet Out

The primary method for enticing the inferior fleet into battle is to conduct ancillary operations to draw them out.[8] The blockade and destruction of merchant shipping are two such methods. During World War I, while German  merchant ships were almost immediately swept from the seas and bottled up in port for much of the war, some seaborne trade with bordering neutral nations continued to reach Germany. In addition, as a continental nation with land access to other resources, Germany, although severely affected by trade interruption, was never driven by the economic blockade to the point of risking its fleet to reestablish seaborne commerce. Continental powers are less susceptible to blockade than are maritime powers.

The Royal Navy also employed a distant blockade to entice the High Seas Fleet to sortie out where it could be attacked and destroyed. In a distant blockade, the blockading force stays well away from the enemy’s coast and allows them to leave port, at which point the blockading force would move to intercept and destroy the sortieing force. Admiral Jellicoe, commander in chief of the Grand Fleet, kept the main body of the fleet, the Battle Force (BF), operating out of Scapa Flow, Scotland, toward the northern end of the North Sea. Jellicoe would sortie the BF into the North Sea whenever he thought the High Seas Fleet might venture out from its ports. The problem with this approach, however, was that it was entirely reactive : it did not involve actively enticing the High Seas Fleet to venture into the North Sea, so the only hope for this method to be effective was if the High Seas Fleet ventured out on its own volition, which it was loathe to do.

Another method of drawing the enemy out is to conduct spoiling attacks against their ports, coasts, or patrolling forces. Britain did conduct some such attacks. However, these efforts were not conducted with the express purpose of drawing out the High Seas Fleet, not always coordinated with the Grand Fleet, and the Germans never took the bait. A particularly egregious example of this was the Battle of Heligoland Bight.[9]

The Battle of Heligoland Bight consisted of a sweep conducted by two  destroyer flotillas led by two light cruisers, supported by submarines. s, to ambush patrolling German torpedo boats and light cruisers. The operation was proposed directly to the Admiralty by the commodores involved, and Admiral Jellicoe, their commander in chief, was not notified until after the plan was in place. When he did learn of the operation, Jellicoe, unbeknownst to the forces conducting the sweep, ordered a Light Cruiser Squadron (LCS) and the Battle Cruiser Force (BCF) to cover the operation, and sortied the Grand Fleet to back up the BCF. Astonishingly, the operating forces were never effectively told that the LCS and BCF were at sea in their support! Although the BCF was instrumental in the battle, the fact that many of the British operating forces didn’t know it was present resulted in British attacks on the BCF that were, fortunately, unsuccessful. Had the High Seas Fleet sortied against the destroyer sweep, the Grand Fleet might have been able to intercept and destroy them, but that was not the planned intent of the operation; moreover, the Grand Fleet was not adequately positioned to do so. In fact, if the High Seas Fleet had been able to sortie it may very well have caught and destroyed the BCF, a significant accomplishment indeed![10]

In addition to blockade and spoiling attacks, an additional method for drawing the enemy fleet out is to launch a seaborne invasion. With the BCF and destroyer flotillas protecting the invasion force from attack by cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and torpedo boats—and covered in turn by the Battle Force—nothing short of the High Seas Fleet would suffice to prevent the British from landing an expeditionary force and opening a new front against Germany. The primary benefit of such an operation, of course, was to open a second front and potentially relieve or complement operations on the Western Front, which had essentially entered into stalemate early in the war. However, the German North Sea and Baltic coasts don’t provide geographically suitable locations for such an invasion and are relatively easy to defend from such an attack. The British never attempted such an operation in the North Sea or Baltic area of operations.

The Inferior Fleet

As the Germans had no naval strategy at the beginning of the war, they were forced to adopt one that recognized the “inferior fleet” nature of the High Seas Fleet compared to the Grand Fleet. An inferior fleet uses area denial tactics, techniques, and technologies to deny its coastal waters to the superior fleet. In addition, an inferior fleet operates as a “fleet in being,” making use of equalizing tactics, harassing operations, and operational withdrawal to challenge the superior fleet for sea control.[11] The Germans even had a term to describe their equalizing tactics: Ausfallsflotte, meaning “to bring about an equalization of forces towards an ultimate trial of strength.”[12]

Inferior-Superior Competition in Action

The two engagements that illustrated many of the classic elements of inferior-versus-superior fleet operations were the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland. The Battle of Dogger Bank began when a German battlecruiser fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, planned a raid on the British trawler fleet in the vicinity of Dogger Bank.[13] The German navy suspected that British trawlers, fishing in an area approximately halfway between Germany and the British coast, were reporting on German fleet movements, so the plan was to clear the area of these vessels and sink any minor British warships that might be in the vicinity. The High Seas Fleet waited in port with steam up to provide a covering force for the withdrawing battlecruiser force, if it should become necessary.

The British were not, in fact, receiving reports from these trawlers. Alerted to the German plan through decrypted wireless intercepts, the Royal Navy laid a trap spearheaded by Vice Admiral Beatty’s BCF. Unfortunately, Beatty did not effectively coordinate the movement of his forces with Admiral Jellicoe’s more powerful BF—which was located too far to the north to assist in the destruction of Hipper’s force to protect the BCF from the High Seas Fleet — if it had appeared. If Beatty’s BCF had run into the covering High Seas Fleet, it would have been destroyed, thereby achieving one of the primary goals of an inferior fleet—the piecemeal destruction of part of the superior fleet.

As it was, that did not come to pass. Beatty did intercept Hipper and was successfully pursuing his inferior force. At a critical point, Beatty thought he saw a periscope and turned his ships away. The threat failing to materialize and his flagship damaged and falling behind, Beatty tried to order his force to resume pursuing Hipper’s main body, but confusing signals resulted in his force concentrating on a single older ship, SMS Blücher, that had been damaged and had dropped astern of the main body. Hipper’s force drew away until it was impossible for Beatty’s force to catch them again. Although the High Seas Fleet had belatedly gotten underway to support Hipper’s force, he escaped without requiring its support and both forces returned to Germany.

The Germans might have been able to destroy Beatty’s force if the High Seas Fleet had been at sea covering Hipper, instead of waiting in port to sortie out in support of the German admiral’s withdrawal. Similarly, if Jellicoe’s BF had been assigned to assist in trapping and destroying Hipper’s force, rather than just as a distant covering force, the Royal Navy may have destroyed the entire force. If both the battle force and High Seas Fleet had been at sea and positioned to provide direct support of Beatty’s and Hipper’s forces, respectively, the great culminating and decisive battle between the main fleet forces that the Royal Navy sought might have occurred in the vicinity of Dogger Bank.

As it was, the Battle of Jutland almost became that decisive battle. The origins of the Battle of Jutland were similar to those of the Battle of Dogger Bank. The main difference was that Admiral Scheer’s High Seas Fleet sortied with Admiral Hipper’s battlecruiser scouting force to provide a covering force.[14] In addition to clearing the area of trawlers, the goal was for the battlecruiser scouting force to entice Beatty’s BCF to attack them, and then lead them into the waiting arms of the High Seas Fleet. Unfortunately, for the Germans, the British had again intercepted and decoded their radio messages, and Jellicoe’s BF was moving to cover Beatty’s BCF. The British plan was the mirror image of the German plan: Beatty was to lure the High Seas Fleet into the arms of the BF.

At different points in the battle, it looked as if each side would achieve its goals. The engagement began with Beatty chasing Hipper until he came into range of the High Seas Fleet. Then, the High Seas Fleet pursued Beatty back toward Jellicoe’s approaching Grand Fleet until the High Seas Fleet came into contact with the Grand Fleet. Then, it was Scheer’s turn to try and evade Jellicoe, aided by a combination of a tactical decision on the part of Jellicoe to turn away from a destroyer-launched torpedo attack, and growing darkness. Having lost contact with the High Seas Fleet, Jellicoe guessed wrong as to Scheer’s route back to Germany, and Scheer was able to fight his way through Jellicoe’s destroyer screen and escape.

Viewed from an inferior versus superior fleet perspective, Jutland represented the fact that both sides had developed, through trial and error, a strategy for pursuing their goals. As the inferior fleet, the Germans used a harassing attack on British trawlers to try and destroy a portion of the British fleet (Beatty’s BCF). Leveraging their distant blockade strategy and cryptanalysis capability, the British attempted to lay a trap for the German High Seas Fleet. In the end, the British plan very nearly worked and, despite their numerically greater losses, Jutland ended up a strategic victory for the British as the German High Seas Fleet never again seriously challenged them for command of the North Sea.

Sea Control as a Means to an End

Sea control should not be an end in itself; the purpose of gaining sea control is to use it for maritime — commercial and military — purposes. Corbett states that there are two broad objects of naval operations, “one... to obtain or dispute command of the sea, and the other to exercise such control of communications...”[15] Frank Uhlig Jr. expands on this point in How Navies Fight: The U.S. Navy and Its Allies:

[Navies fight] to ensure first that friendly shipping can flow and second that hostile shipping cannot. Once the flow of friendly shipping is assured, then, if it is necessary or desirable, navies can risk landing an army on a hostile shore, supporting that arm with fire and logistics.[16]

Addressing broader aspects of military strategy, John C. Wylie is even more direct, stating that maritime strategic theory focuses on “the establishment of control of the sea, and the exploitation of the control of the sea toward establishment of control on the land.”[17]

Finally, Benjamin Armstrong discusses exercising sea control as pursuing the “three B’s”: blockade, bombardment, and boots [on the ground].[18] Blockade to prevent the maritime (naval and commercial) use of the seas by the enemy, bombardment to destroy enemy infrastructure, and boots on the ground to launch an invasion of enemy territory. The British did the former, but it didn’t have sufficient strategic effect: Cutting off commercial use of the seas did not compel Germany to stop pursuing war, or even to risk their fleet. The British failed to use their control of the North Sea to threaten German infrastructure seriously, and although it did ensure that German surface raiders couldn’t threaten British maritime commerce, it was unable to prevent German submarines from putting to sea and threatening commercial shipping lanes. Instead, the Royal Navy used their general command of the sea to open a second front, the amphibious landing at Gallipoli, and the Germans eventually turned to unrestricted submarine warfare to threaten British commerce. The German High Seas Fleet continued to act effectively as a “fleet in being” in denying the Grand Fleet free use of the North Sea until the end of the war.

Applying Historical Lessons

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars there was no naval power in the world that could challenge the British Royal Navy. For nearly 100 years, it could sail and steam wherever trade and national interests dictated. At the end of that period, it was faced with a near-peer competitor who forced it to re-learn the lessons of sea control. Similarly, at the end of the Cold War there was no naval power on earth that could successfully challenge the United States. With no near-peer competitor and free to operate virtually anywhere in the world, the U.S. Navy forgot much of what it was to compete for control of the seas.

Today, there is growing concern that near-peer competitors may pose a more significant military threat in the future that may be less susceptible to conventional-force deterrence.[19] When considering a possible naval war between the United States and China, for example, the naval struggle between Germany and Britain during World War I provides some clear lessons. For some time into the future, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) will remain an “inferior” regional navy to the “superior” U.S. Navy. In a naval contest between the two, the PLA(N) will deny access to the East and South China Seas, attempt to attrite the striking power of the U.S. Navy, and threaten regional allies like Japan and the Philippines. Remaining open is the question of how such a naval contest might begin. The United States should look to other historical cases—the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and Pearl Harbor, for example—and be prepared for a surprise attack designed to level the playing field in favor of the inferior fleet.

For its part, the U.S. Navy, supported primarily by the U.S Air Force, will attempt to degrade the PLA(N), interdict or otherwise control Chinese maritime commerce, and maintain access to allies and partners in the region. A significant challenge, one shared with the British in World War I, is how to entice the inferior fleet to venture out from the denied area that it will establish in the East and South China Seas.

The United States would be wise to remember, however, two other lessons from the historical example presented. The first is the strategic depth of a continental power, even one so tied to international commerce as China. The second lesson is the extreme difficulty of conducting an effective distant blockade. The historical example presented in this essay shows how difficult the struggle for sea control can be.

Finally, a naval war with China would have a greater maritime character than did World War I; it is unlikely that major combat operations would occur on the mainland, making the study and understanding of historical naval campaigns and sea control that much more critical.


Sea control is concerned with the control and use of sea lines of communication — making use of them for one’s naval and maritime purposes and denying their use by the enemy. Sea control is rarely absolute; it involves an ongoing contest between opposing forces. Superior fleets will attempt to gain control to project power so as to achieve strategic goals; inferior fleets will attempt to deny sea control to the superior fleet, thereby thwarting its strategic goals, and wrest what control it can for its purposes. The historical example presented in this essay illustrates this timeless struggle. The study and understanding of the principles of such contests can aid naval leaders in their efforts to plan and execute successful campaigns in the future.



[1] Julian Corbett, Principles of Maritime Strategy (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004. Citations refer to the reprint), 87, 90.

[2] Ibid., Part II, Chapter 1.

[3] Ibid.,  87.

[4] Ibid., Part III.

[5] Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 15. Although the focus of Budiansky’s book is on World War II, he did provide this relevant observation about German naval strategy prior to World War I.

[6] Corbett, Principles, 166–234.

[7] John C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1967), 159.

[8] Corbett, Principles, 160.

[9] James Goldrick, Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914–February 1915(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 111–38.

[10] As it was, because of the tides the High Seas Fleet was not able to sortie until the Royal Navy operating forces were clear of the area. However, this was a matter of luck, not planning. The Royal Navy knew the High Seas Fleet was not underway, but apparently did not consult the tide tables and realize that the Germans would not be able to clear the River Jade bar and sortie against them during the time span of the operation.

[11] Corbett, Principles, 211–215.

[12] Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 562.

[13] Goldrick, Before Jutland, 255–84.

[14] Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnaught to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era 1904–1919Volume III: Jutland and After: May to December 1916 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 38.

[15] Corbett, Principles, 164.

[16] Frank Uhlig, Jr., How Navies Fight: The U.S. Navy and Its Allies (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 399.

[17] Wylie, Military Strategy, 33.

[18] Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, “D — All of the Above: Connecting 21st Century Naval Doctrine to Strategy” (Infinity Journal, Vol. 4, Issue 4, Summer 2015), 14–15.

[19] Bryan Clark et al., Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy(Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017), 2


Published: Tue Sep 04 15:15:49 EDT 2018