Naval Organization, American and British


Individual power, individual responsibility are the fundamental merits of the bureau system. Its defect is lack of coordination,' says Mahan. And again he declares that 'war shows the merits of a bureau system, peace its defects.'

It is a trite observation that almost any system will work if you have the right men. This is peculiarly true of our Navy Department, where, under the President, the civilian Secretary of the Navy has complete and absolute authority. Greatness in a chief does not consist in undertaking to supervise the details of the work of subordinates, but in the ability to recognize individual talent, to put the proper individual in the proper place, and, above all, to trust the men so chosen. The supreme executive quality is a knowledge of men. And any secretary possessing this quality alone, however deficient otherwise, cannot fail to make a success of his administration, provided that he in turn has the trust of his superior, the President. Thanks to our traditional system of training officers, which has been copied by the British and other nations, we possess to-day what is probably the finest personnel in the world.

Modern wars, and especially modern naval wars, for their successful prosecution demand imagination. Hence our supreme problem to-day is, first, to organize our available imagination, then to make it count. Fortunately, in our naval service, imagination is not lacking. Under our system a poor executive, who for political or other reasons insists upon taking charge of details, is likely to select subservient subordinates, or to encourage subserviency in them—his power of selection and removal being unlimited. Or, if these subordinates be not all subservient, the subservient are in a position to oppose, and oppose successfully, either to the Secretary or in his behalf before Congress, the views of those who maintain their integrity.

The present system employed in the Navy Department has been criticized and might perhaps be bettered. As it stands, however, it may, at the choice of the Secretary, become either the most efficient or the most deplorable of governmental agencies. According as the Secretary has executive ability, a political or a patriotic turn of mind, it can be run as a house divided against itself (on the nefarious theory of checks and balances that has played such havoc with our government), or it can be run as a loyal and efficient unit, with every officer exerting his best efforts toward the accomplishment of a logical end—to fight a successful war. Energy, originality, imagination can be developed and encouraged, or suppressed, at the will and disposition of the Secretary of the Navy. Officers, the best experts we possess in their various branches, may be given free play for their imagination, time and opportunity for joint discussion of problems and for forming concerted opinions, or their opinions may never be called for. They may have the continued heart-breaking experience of making reports and suggestions on which they have worked outside of office hours—never to hear from them again; they may be swamped under the detail a twenty-dollar-a-week clerk could perform, and all their expensive training of a lifetime and interest in their profession go for nothing; they may spend hours of their time awaiting a secretary's signature, cooling their heels in his office—or they may be utilized.

All these are possibilities under our system.

Intelligence is a good thing, but it is also necessary to get the right kind of intelligence in the right place. And Macaulay complained that England was ruled by orators. An orator, with a wide knowledge of various subjects but with a complete mastery of none, does not always make a good executive. On the other hand, an executive may have ability himself, but he must be able to recognize and respect it in others. He must know a specialist when he sees one, and be willing to make his bow to the specialist. This is a supreme gift. However intelligent he may be, if he does not bow to that specialist, why, he ceases to be intelligent. However stupid he may be, if he has sense enough to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, he cannot altogether fail as Secretary of the Navy.

In this crisis, when the fate of the British Empire and the future of America depend upon the successful prosecution of warfare at sea, the personalities of our Secretary of the Navy and of the British First Lord of the Admiralty become of paramount importance. It is not, indeed, too much to say that the question of the survival of the Anglo-Saxon system of government, of that individual liberty for which the people of the two nations have struggled through centuries, to-day rests largely on the shoulders of these two men.

The British First Lord of the Admiralty is continually responsible to Parliament—which is the British executive; nor could he, I am told, for a moment stand up against the concerted opinion of the naval profession if it were voiced in opposition to his own. Nevertheless, it is virtually in his power to choose his naval advisers, and also, if he has an idea that all wisdom will die with him, to dominate them—especially if they are chosen with that view. Thus the position of the head of the navy in Britain is sufficiently similar to that of our own Secretary of Navy to draw a parallel, although the latter is absolute under the President.

The former safeguard of the British system was that the responsibility for naval strategy was vested in the Sea Lords, or naval officers of the Board; for the British Navy Department is a board, not, as with us, an individual; a board, as Admiral Mahan pointed out, that embraces an extremely strong element of matured professional knowledge. But by an order in council promulgated in the seventies the First Lord became predominant—although the winning of a naval victory might be supposed to be an admiral's and not a statesman's affair.

Perhaps the most refreshing note in the conversation of those members of the recent British Commission to this country with whom I talked, from Mr. Balfour down, was their willingness to acknowledge their mistakes. 'This is what we have done,' they said. 'Don't you be such idiots.' They are anxious to have us profit by their experience. Therefore I venture here to dwell for a moment on that campaign of criticism fought out in the British public press, and especially in Land and Water, by Mr. Arthur Pollen and others. The needed reforms now having apparently been made, one feels the less delicacy in reviewing the situation, especially since the moral to be pointed out has to do with the question of the personality of the civilian Secretary, or First Lord.

That the British navy was ready for instant action when the war broke out was due, we are told, to the watchfulness of the First Lord of the Admiralty of that day. German cruisers and merchant ships were swept from the seven seas, and the German fleet has been bottled up ever since—although bubbles have been escaping—most inconvenient bubbles! In addition to brilliant gifts, Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill—judging solely by the record he made—had his own ideas in regard to naval policy and strategy, and was in a position to enforce them. His naval policy, excellent so far as it went, seems to have ignored the traditions of a service noted for aggression. Known as the material policy, it laid its emphasis on big ships, and a sufficient number of them to make an invincible fleet that could win a war without fighting. 'Without a battle,' he said, 'we had all that the most victorious battles could give us.' The weakness of this policy, as pointed out by British naval experts and our own, is its lack of what may be called naval imagination, of the anticipation of just such a campaign as the Germans have inaugurated. One of the wisest naval experts in England, Sir Percy Scott, early called attention to the grave menace of the submarine, implying that a control of the surface of the seas was insufficient. And seamen chafe under inaction. It is the main business of a navy to fight.

The present trend of criticism in Great Britain, which I quote without comment, goes so far as to hint that there was a chance, in the battle of Jutland, of crushing the German fleet; but that the admiral in command, giving heed in the Admiralty policy of maintaining command of the seas without fighting, did not venture to break through the screen of German destroyers and repeat Farragut's famous exclamation, 'Damn the torpedoes!' This British criticism, it should instantly be said, is no reflection whatever upon the courage of a brave and gallant admiral; and it will long remain a disputed question whether the tactics followed by the Commander-in-Chief were or were not the proper ones for the occasion. A layman may have no opinion. But the long-run result of the policy of 'victory without a battle' may to a certain extent have justified the ironical remark of Professor Pollard, that Great Britain is still defending her command of the seas.

The submarine now threatens the British Empire with defeat. By using our utmost efforts, we can replace only a portion of the millions of tons of world's shipping now being destroyed. And with the best will in the world, it is an interesting and even a debatable question whether we can bring our military force to bear and transport a sufficient number of troops to France. What seems needed is more prevention and less cure; more large patrols and destroyers and fewer merchantmen. And a demand is gradually making itself heard in both countries that the naval imagination of both Britain and America shall be organized for a vigorous policy. Several plans have already been evolved on both sides of the water—aggressive, constructive plans; but they seem to have gone to sleep serenely in pigeon-holes. Some have been aired. That which appears to be the most sensible of them contemplates the destruction of the German fleet. Ingenuity must be met by ingenuity, and American ingenuity must combine with British. We must have concerted council and action. Battleships cannot steam through mine-fields into Cuxhaven and pound the German fleet to pieces while at anchor; new instruments must be invented, a new species of campaign must be inaugurated. At least one promising plan has been developed, into the details of which I am not at liberty to go, contemplating new naval instruments and a novel species of campaign. But it is obvious that, if the German fleet were once destroyed, the submarine rat-holes could be stopped by mines, and in that way the present menace of the pestilence would be averted.

The failure of a 'victory without a battle' policy illustrates the mischief that may accrue when naval opinion as a whole is not consulted by a civilian chief who has it in his power to reverse tradition; who, with the best will in the world and through the most patriotic of motives, follows a policy of his own. And the Dardanelles campaign seems to have been still another instance of too much civilian domination. The armored forts of Belgium having been demolished by the German great guns, it was argued that the defenses of the Dardanelles could be reduced to dust by the 12- and 13.5-inch guns of battleships. This is true so far as it goes—provided that battleships can continue accurately to hit the forts. The defect in the conception lies in the fact that modern long-range gunnery demands observing or 'spotting' officers in positions of advantage, in order that the ranges may continually be corrected. Lacking such posts of observation, airplanes or captive balloons are necessary. The forts of the Dardanelles indeed suffered a crushing hail of fire; but precision was out of the question. And as soon as the British fleet opened up, the Turks retired to their dugouts, to return to the forts when the bombardment was at an end. Meanwhile the Germans organized torpedo and mine attacks: ships were hit and sunk.

The large tactical mistake would appear to have been that of insisting on opening such an action by naval operations, in themselves ineffective, thus giving warning to the Turks, and making a military operation impossible. If the campaign had been begun as a military operation with naval help, by landing the army under cover of the battleship fire, it is claimed that the army might then have got a foothold and marched on to victory.


Success or failure, then, in both the British and American naval administrations, seems to depend upon the personality of the civilian chief. One great lesson to be drawn from the life of Abraham Lincoln is that a certain humility is an essential quality of true greatness. And a civilian chief who enters office with preconceived theories, obsessions, or complexes,—as the psychologists say,—is capable of doing incalculable harm. If he has the point of view that he exists for the Navy, not the Navy for him, all is likely to be well.

'Happily,' says Mahan, apropos of our good fortune in having Mr. Fox as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, 'this lucky country, which at first cast got Farragut for this most critical command of the War of Secession ... unwittingly introduced into the naval system a singularly fit man'; and he declares that thus there entered the Department 'a means by which the enthusiastic determination of the nation could take shape in intelligent comprehension of the issues and in strongly coordinated effort.'

Since May, 1915, however, the criticism of the British Admiralty has not been that it was unwilling to act, but that it was not organized for action. It is argued that, if the business of a navy is to fight, naval strategy is the province of seamen; and hence it follows that the most important element in the conduct of a war should be left to the naval officers, and that these should be untrammeled and unhampered by any other duties or concerns. Moreover, the officers so chosen to develop the strategy of a war must not represent a group of opinions alone in their profession, but all groups focused in a general staff that hammers out the policy. Through such a staff the First Sea Lord becomes responsible to the civilian chief for the naval conduct of the war. His test is one of success.

In the new organization the number of sea lords has been increased. These sea lords are a peculiarly strategical body, each having a separate duty, but acting in continual council with the others. One of the sea lords, for instance, has entire charge of the submarine campaign.

There is also a strategical staff composed of some thirty officers, all in their different spheres the best experts obtainable, whose duty it is constantly to compare plans and advise the First Sea Lord, who now becomes also Chief of Staff. Therefore the First Sea Lord, instead of advising the government, as formerly, on his personal responsibility, has the whole staff, and hence the whole navy, behind him when he gives his advice—advice that no civilian secretary can successfully ignore. Moreover the staff tactics are now adopted by the board as a whole, and not merely on the First Sea Lord's recommendation.

'Strategy in its widest meaning,' to quote our Admiral Huse in an article in the United States Naval Institute, 'includes logistics and tactics as integral branches of the art of war.... To this end strategy is limited to planning and directing, while logistics provides the means'—the supplies which the strategists need to win a victory.

In addition to the raw materials, such as coal and steel,—to name two important ones,—there are contracts to be placed for guns and ships, for dry docks and navy yards, for clothing and equipment of all kinds. Such a task demands an expert, and obviously a business expert, and organizer. Under the British system there is the office of Comptroller, the functions of which have been greatly enlarged and wisely given over to a civilian who has made his reputation as an organizer, Sir Eric Geddes. This place was formerly in the hands of a naval officer. Sir Eric Geddes was with the army, and reproduced, as has been said, the Pennsylvania Railroad behind the lines in France. He has been made a vice-admiral and a member of the Board of Admiralty; he has absolute charge of placing all contracts for guns, ships, ammunition,—in short, for whatever is needed,—but he takes naval advice in considering naval requirements. The really remarkable and significant thing in the appointment of Sir Eric, a civilian, is that the exigencies of a great war are compelling the overthrow of precedent and the adoption of common-sense methods to deal with a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand.

The principle of strategy for strategists, of administration for administrators, is unassailable.


It is most important that the people of the United States should take an active interest in their Navy; that they should have a knowledge of its administration, since in a democracy no department of government can thrive without scrutiny, without a focused public interest behind it. The Secretary, under the President, is an autocrat; and autocracy without responsibility, not to a party alone, but to the nation at large, must invariably be pernicious. My object in writing this article is to acquaint as many readers as possible with certain broad principles, as well as to attempt, briefly, to sketch the 'Bureau System' that has developed during the history of the Department.

There are several bureaus, each headed by a naval officer, whose functions are of supply—what Admiral Huse calls logistics: the Bureau of Construction and Repair, to build and repair ships; of Engineering, to supply and design engines, and the like; of Ordnance, to design guns; of Navigation, to train and furnish men and officers—the personnel; of Yards and Docks; of Medicine and Surgery; of Supplies and Accounts—sufficiently explained by their titles. There is also what is called the Bureau, or Office, of Naval Operations, the business of which would appear to concern itself alone with strategy. Congress, in March, 1915, provided by law that 'the Chief of Naval Operations,'—who is an admiral,—'shall, under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy, be charged with the operations of the fleet and with the preparation and readiness of plans for its use in war.' Now these functions, as derived from that paragraph, would seem to be purely strategic, as one might infer they ought to be. At present our Office of Naval Operations is organized as a bureau. If it were divested of the logistic functions that now it incongruously possesses, it would become an instrument of strategy, such as the British General Staff, composed of the best experts in the service. And a Secretary of the Navy, if he chooses, can throw all the responsibility for strategy on his Chief of Operations, giving him full authority—for authority and responsibility are inseparable. The Secretary can also, if he wishes, permit the Admiral who is his Chief of Operations to choose his staff. Here we should have a procedure that is the exact counterpart of the system at which the British Government has arrived after some years of rather bitter experience; and our Chief of Operations, at the will of our Secretary, can be made virtually First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and Chief of Staff. It is not going too far, I think, to declare that a successful issue in war depends upon whether or not a secretary is willing to take the step of leaving naval strategy to naval strategists, who should be relieved of all logistic duties.

When we return to the Regulations for the Government of the Navy, however, and examine the duties of the Chief of Operations, we find them so bewildering, such a mixture of logistic, administrative, and strategical functions, that we begin to wonder how any man can supervise them all and keep his head. One of his duties, it may be noted, is to prepare and revise the Regulations himself—he is charged with inditing his own sentence. Congress has apparently made him a strategist, but in the nine paragraphs enumerating his tasks we find logistics and strategy embracing one another, while from between the lines is summoned up the tragic picture of a naval Hercules tightly bound with the red tape that numerous civilian secretaries have wound around him. If a secretary so elects, he can run this office himself, together with all the other bureaus, by insisting upon overlooking and signing all the correspondence emerging from them. He can tie up the usefulness of the whole organization tighter than a towing bowline.

Admiral Huse enumerates the functions of strategy as the following:—

The number of vessels of each type required, and their characteristics.

Location of naval bases and repair stations, and their capabilities.

War plans providing for all possible contingencies.

Organization of the forces.

Operations and movements of forces in the execution of policy in peace and war.

Operations and movements of forces for the purpose of exercise and test, as in war games.

Naval logistics include the following, all to be performed in accordance with the requirements of strategy:—

Planning, constructing, and maintaining the fleet.

Fortifying, developing, and maintaining naval bases and stations.

Enlisting, maintaining, training, educating, and drilling personnel. This includes target-practice.

Providing, storing, and delivering supplies of all kinds, including ordnance, ammunition, fuel, clothing, provisions, etc.

Transporting personnel and material; care of ill and wounded.

This seems admirably clear. But here, in addition to his strategical functions, are some of the logistic duties of Chief of Operations: the direction of the Naval War College, the office of gunnery exercises and engineering performances, the operation of aeronautical service, of mines and mining, of the naval districts and naval militia, the direction of gunnery exercises and drills. The tendency, in practice, is for him to assume more and more supervision over the bureaus of supply, and thus to become a bureaucrat.

There is also in our Navy Department a General Board authorized by the Secretary—which he has the right to do without the sanction of Congress. Its duties are advisory to the Secretary, and its counsels are supposed to be strategic, though here once more we find the logistic commingling. Now a secretary has the power to relieve both the office of Chief of Operations and also the General Board of all administrative details. If he chooses to throw the responsibility for naval strategy on the Chief of Operations, he can then make the General Board an advisory council to the Chief of Operations—a proceeding that Admiral Huse advises, since it would include all strategy under one authority. As things have been since the organization of the Office of Operations, that office finds itself so overwhelmed with routine work, with supervision and detail, that it has little time for strategy, and is in substance a bureau of bureaus. And the strategical work it is supposed by the Regulations to perform is taken up by the General Board, which is now independent of it. The duties of the two are duplicated in the Regulations: and in practice, if a secretary be of a political turn of mind, he can play one against the other—checks and balances again. On the other hand, a good secretary can make the present system work by leaving the strategical suggestions as outlined by Admiral Huse to the General Board, and by using operations to carry out the suggestions. The General Board, at whose head used to be the Admiral of the Navy, and which is made up of admirals and other tried officers, is supposed to represent a mature body of opinion, and has always preserved the confidence of the Congress and the country. The Chief of Operations is ex officio a member of it, though he seldom gets time to attend its meetings. The consensus of opinion would seem to be, however, that the duties of the Admiral of Operations should be simplified and made purely strategical, and that the Board should be advisory to him. Thus the responsibility for the conduct of the Navy in war is definitely placed, and a requisite authority given.

To divide administration from strategy, as the British have done, would seem to be wise: and, as Admiral Huse proposes, to assign our Assistant Secretary of the Navy as a Chief of Logistics, as a buyer and contractor, as a responsible head of all the bureaus of supply, would appear to be the logical trend for our organization to take. The Secretary is left to supervise logistics and strategy, and to direct naval policy, which is largely the coordination of the national policy with the nation's naval force. He consults with the President, with the Committee of the Congress, he sits on the National Council of Defense. He is not absorbed in detail; he keeps his desk clear.

*The author of this article is not Winston Spencer Churchill the prime minister of Britain, but Winston Churchill the American novelist, who lived from 1871 to 1947 and wrote such best-selling historical novels as Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904).