Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jutland Fallacies

This week commemorates The Battle Of Jutland - the largest naval battle in history that took place during The Great War between the navies of Germany and The United Kingdom.  In this piece we're going to look at the run up to the battle, some of the thinking of those in charge, and looking to see if fallacies were in place.  And even try to spot them!

Setting the context



At the start of the Great War, the British Empire covered the globe, serviced as it was by a giant navy which since Nelson and The Battle Of Trafalgar stood unopposed.  Britannia ruled the waves.

Such a large sea empire demanded a large navy - and Britain had the largest on earth.  Until recently it was large enough to challenge the next two sea powers combined.  However a new kind of battleship, the dreadnoughts had so revolutionised naval warfare with their huge guns and steam turbines that they practically rendered all other ships outdated and obsolete.

The British Empire was in a building frenzy to maintain dominance, but Germany was catching up fast by the outbreak of war.

The German Navy had sought to trap pockets of the British Navy and whittle them down, however at Jutland, the entire German Navy fell into a trap, being lured into a headlong battle into the entire British Navy.

The British Navy were in superior numbers to the German Navy - 151 ships to Germany's 99.  The British Navy were not only in prepared firing ranks to maximise their firepower, but were also one of the best trained and professional seamen in the world.

As the clickbait says "what happens next will amaze you ..."

Germany 3 - Britain 1


Jutland is a complicated battle to sum up.  From the actions on the day, the battle is a decisive German win.  When looking at "the big ships sunk" Germany will lose 1 battlecruiser, whilst Britain will lose 3.

But there is more to it than that - German battlecruiser Lutzow would be hit 24 times by British shells.  The damage was extensive and it was originally hoped she would make it back to port.  However eventually her handling was so poor she had to be scuttled.

On the British side though, there's a very different story - the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Invincible all suffered a very similar and violent end.  In each, the ships exploded after just a handful of hits.  In each case, of the crew of over 1000, only a handful of men survived.

The day would lead a British Admiral to commend "there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today".  What had gone so wrong?

Tales from the magazine...

Diagram from Wikipedia 

To answer that question we need to cover off normal operation of a key component of a battlecruiser - the gun turret, and how it's fed ammunition from it's magazine.

The magazine - where shells and cordite explosives are kept have always been in the deepest parts of the ships. The theory being they're below the water line, and harder to hit with chance shots.

In peacetime onboard British ships, priming the big gun with ammunition was all about safety.  The shell room and magazine for cordite are highly armoured, and isolated from the lift shaft that feeds the turret by safety doors, to prevent the chances of a blast blowing through into either - a disasterous situation which would spell instant doom for the ship.

That makes sense on paper...

That was peacetime, but in 1916, this was war!

Within the modern warships of the time, there was a kind of iron triangle rule in place,

  • Armour
  • Firepower
  • Speed


Pick two.  The battleship focused on armour and firepower, to the determent of it's speed.  The battle cruiser though picked more firepower and speed - it was seen as almost a naval form of cavalry to do lighting raids and get out, particularly picking off enemy shipping.

British battlecruisers focused more on having big guns, sacrificing armour compared to comparable German counterparts.  There was a logic to this - British battlecruisers could strike German battlecruisers from further away, where the German ships would not be able to strike back.  Their range would be their armour.

Being a better drilled and practiced navy, Britain could maintain a faster rate of fire from it's big guns than German, and during the war, this rate only increased.  And this too made sense to the Admirals, because if the Germans were being heavily shelled at a faster rate, they would struggle to reply.  So the British fleet's rate of fire would be their armour.

To make this rate of fire as fast as possible, it was decided in drills to stop the practice of shutting magazine and shell room doors whilst feeding munitions up to the turrets above.  They would be kept open to "keep feeding the guns".

This would of course be risky - these people weren't idiots.  But it had a logic to it - the more shots you got off at the enemy, the less time they'd have to respond, the quicker they'd sink the enemy.  Obvious.

But this also presented a problem - the sustained firing rate meant in a heated battle, a British ship run out of ammunition before it's German counterpart.  There was only one logical thing to do - to make sure you were carrying more ammunition - so it was decided to carry about 50% more ammunition in wartime.

Of course there was a small problem - there wasn't room in the current magazine for any more ammo.  So instead it was stored throughout the ship, wherever there was space.  Of course this wouldn't be in an armoured space, and was incredibly risky.  But there was a logic to this - this ammunition would be used first, and besides with the better range of guns, faster rate of fire and speed, it's not like the ship was in much of a risk of being hit at any rate.

F-A-L-L-A-C-Y spells BOOM!

On paper, each of those arguments seems to make a certain kind of sense,

  • Big guns means being able to hit from a range you can't be hit back. So you'll be safe.
  • If you hit them more, they have less chance to fire back. So you'll be safe.
  • The more you shoot them, the faster they sink. So you'll be safe.
  • Take more ammunition. So you'll be safe.
  • Because you're so safe, you don't need to follow full safety precautions which only get in the way.

I love the definition Wikipedia has under fallacy, "a fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is".

To me, a fallacy is an idea which seems to initially make perfect intuitive sense ... just so long as you don't start thinking too much about it, and finding all the holes.  I've found Daniel Kahnman's Thinking Fast And Slow has been filled with superb examples where our fast, intuitive thinking can lead us astray, and where to be wary.

All those arguments make a certain logical sense.  What's missing though is that as you take each step of action, you're taking a course of action that's putting yourself at greater and greater risk.  The question not being asked is "does the extra aggressive punch this gives me take off comfortably with the risk?".

At Jutland the answer turned out to be a resounding "no".  With all the British battlecruisers lost, the explosion in the magazine happened soon after a chance shell hit the turret, setting off a catastrophic chain reaction - one which could have been prevented by following the normal peacetime safety guidelines.

HMS Lion - narrowly avoided a similar fate

This was almost the fate of the HMS Lion as well, but thanks to the quick thinking of Francis Harvey, he managed to shut the blast doors on the turret to prevent flash fires reaching the magazine below.  Although Francis himself perished in the explosion.

Lessons to be learned

It was only a few years ago we were looking at the series of bad judgments that caused the Titanic disaster.  There are a lot of similarities here - when we try and be too clever, we try and twist the logic of reality for our own purposes.

However as Richard Feynman pointed out several times, "nature cannot be fooled".  Your clever arguments hold no weight against pure scientific fact.  I like to think this is really about the core need for testers as well within IT projects - they're the people onboard whose job it is to try and think deep and ask some important "now hey, wait a minute" type of questions.

If every a course of action seems too neat, attractive and instinctual, that's a time to sound off your fallacy alarm, and wonder "okay - what could go wrong".  There's always a drawback, so find it, before it can find you!





Interested in the history of Jutland?

Want to know more, including how despite the British fleet being so badly hammered, it's also considered a strategic British victory?

I highly recommend this documentary on YouTube.

If you live in Wellington, and would like to talk more about the battle and it's history, my wargaming club Wellington Warlords are running the last game recreating the battle from 10am on Saturday 4th June 2016.

6 comments:

  1. Military history is always a source for great metaphors for software development. It's not just project managers acting like First World War generals...

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    Replies
    1. The Somme anniversary is next month. What does that say for sticking to the plan?

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