Or maybe it’s…
Was Procurement the preserve of Grand Strategy and ‘Strategical’ thinking or Operational theory and circumstantial necessity during the Inter-War years?
World War I and World War II often seem to run together in the public perception of history; it’s almost as if militarily the 1920s and 1930s don’t exist. Yet in reality militaries moved on, armies learned a new form of horsepower, air forces appeared and if anything navies became even more swan like – looking almost the serene status quo on the surface, whilst beneath this façade they were forced to move the quickest.
Navies had to do this because they operate above, upon, below and from the sea; with this spread of environment there was no facet of technological change that they could afford to ignore. However, technology, despite how modern defence companies might market it, has never been a zero sum game; there is rarely a simple right or wrong answer. Recently there has been what I consider a rather interesting example of this featured on this site, Tribal class destroyers. Under treaty terms, they were ‘destroyer leaders’ or ‘super destroyers’, yet whilst the US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy really did go for the best ‘destroyer’ type destroyer that could be built, the Royal Navy didn’t. This of course opens up to that favourite pseudo history debate – which ship was better? Which despite allowing for many hours of fun debate is really the wrong question; the question should be which class best fitted its navy’s needs?
Wanting to find the right questions, and then trying to answer them was why I was drawn to study history. It’s especially why the 1920s and 1930s call to me perhaps more than any other period. There are so many questions that still need to be asked, and so many more that need to be answered properly. It is a period which suffers because it has two amazingly rich ‘bookends’ and as such is often seen as either post-one or pre the other. When in fact like any period of history it stands on its own just as much as its part of the confluence.
Historians have the honour of helping preserve the memory of our past, of the lessons that were learned, whether those lessons were paid for in blood, treasure or toil. Sometimes those lessons are reinterpreted, sometimes new facts come to light which change them and sometimes the history falls out of favour or is overlooked for a few years before rediscovery. What matters is that those lessons are not forgotten forever, because it is only by remembering them that there is chance that the price of learning them will not have to be paid again. The overlooking is what drew my focus to the 1920s & 1930s, but why of research can be a more personal, more specific story – especially when it comes to how the research ends up being disseminated.
If asked at a conference I would probably say the Tribal series are about me making the most of my research. Research which I’d done too much of for just a conference paper plus journal article and didn’t want to waste. That though is really only half the equation, the whole truth involves the stories of these ships. Of their crews. Of their service and the feats the combination achieved. Whilst my PhD might have focused on the development of naval aviation, I was always aware of and fascinated by what the destroyer’s crews did. Of how much it mattered. So when I stumbled across a Martin Brice’s Tribals book in the great book store in Tavistock’s covered market(if anyone hasn’t visited it, then when you are next in Cornwall/Devon head there, you won’t be disappointed), it ‘sang’ to me.
When I read it, I started looking to see if anyone else had been written about the class, the answer was not a lot. This annoyed my inner historian, as whilst Brice’s book was beautifully written and obviously well researched, it wasn’t well referenced. It would not act as a guide for a future researcher to return to the topic and look at it anew. Nor would it really fit in a wider study, it was so self-contained. So when I gathered the information together, and realised it was massively too much, the idea of doing the academic journal article (for an excellent journal organised by the same people who’d organised the conference I presented it at) was not the only idea in my mind. Writing an approachable series of ‘shorts’ which might get others interested involved in the topic was also there at the back of my mind. So when the journal article was done and there was so much left over, luckily Sam McLean was kind enough to let me run with my idea.
Being an early career researcher is a strange thing, you’re neither a recognised name nor really a student in the strictest sense any more. You have the passion and love of the subject, but usually not the platform to share it as much as you would wish. Sam though let me do it and for that I’m thankful, and someday I will write him the article about being a dyslexic historian he would like me to. Honestly though at the moment, I’m now so used to writing as a historian, even this blog I had to start off with a history question. Such self-reflection will take time to do something properly, I will do it, but when I’ve had a little more time being a historian.
Returning to the question at the top, it is in the broadest terms the question that started my PhD thesis (which is what inspired the picture choice for this Blog, the wonderful, much forgotten USS Robin… I mean HMS Victorious), what propelled my Tribal class research in many ways, and what has guided my current research on the Town class (conference paper presented in November 2017 – cruiser series coming soon). It is not the question which made me become a historian, in all honesty there were many of those, but it is one of the questions which mean I can’t give up for another career. The answer will not be a simple one, but none of the interesting questions ever are. The reality will probably be a combination of all four, but the lesson, the important thing, will be where the balance was struck between them and how that balance was found. That is the lesson which will take time and hard work to find, so far each project has been a section, a segment and discrete portion of the whole, but eventually the whole will hopefully be done.
Thank you for taking the time to read this…