In “Britain in Blunderland” and its companion essay, Marjorie Bloy discusses what she correctly terms “a war punctuated with blunders and disasters.” Reading Peter Kemp's Encyclopedia of Ships and Seafaring (1980), I came upon yet another example of military incompetence at the senior level, this one caused, like so many similar examples of military disasters over the past two centuries, by blindness to the implications of a new technology. As the encyclopedia explains, “the importance of the revolving gun turret on Naval warfare can hardly be exaggerated. It arrived at almost the same moment as the final development of the rifled gun, which not only considerably increased the range at which naval battles could be fought, but provided the shell fired with it with a predictable path.” As has been the case with military innovation over the past few hundred years, there were

few naval officers in any navy ready for such an advance or capable of taking advantage of it. They were still too close to the era of the sail and smooth-bore, muzzle-loading guns to appreciate the potential of the immensely powerful new weapons which technological developments had placed in their hands. It is hardly surprising that their ideas of sea warfare took some odd turns. [The commander of] the first British all steam-driven fleet which was sent into the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War, had so little conception of how to use the new mobility which enabled him to maneuver ships irrespective of the wind direction, that his sole tactical idea for battle was to use steam power to drive his ships alongside those of the Russians for the crews to fight with cutlasses in true Nelsonian tradition. [121-22]

[The Encyclopedia attributes such blindness to Sir Charles Napier as the comically inept naval commander, but Napier, a successful general in wars in British India, did not serve in the navy. Perhaps the naval commander was a relative.]

This Horseless Carriage Syndrome — understanding new technology only in terms of an older one it has already supplanted —  recurred in later wars, too. During the Boer War British commanders failed to appreciate the value of light artillery created in the U. K. until the Boers used it against them many times, just as they missed the obvious implications of highly accurate rifled weapons in the hands of sharpshooters for (a) bright colored uniforms in combat, (b) differentiating uniforms of officers (aka obvious targets), and (c) massed formations of men and artillery.

The same dramatic lag between the invention of new technologies and understanding their implications for combat continued well into the twentieth century as naval planners of all nations continued to build large battleships long after the American Billy Mitchell had demonstrated how vulnerable they were to a few relatively inexpensive airplanes delivering bombs and torpedos. The Japanese easily destroyed American Battleships during the attack at Pearl Harbor, and, appropriately, the two largest battleships ever built — the Yamato and Musashi, the twin jewels of the Japanese fleet — never fired their weapons at an enemy ship before airplanes sunk them. The massive guns on battleships could hit targets more than 25 miles away with considerable accuracy — but carrier-based airplanes could attack from much farther distant.


Encyclopedia of Ships and Seafaring. Ed. Peter Kemp. New York: Crown Publishers, 1980.

Last modified 8 July 2015